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salmon farms

Biologist Alexandra Morton stands by before announcing an aquaculture lawsuit against the federal government during a press conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, May 8, 2013.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

An independent researcher who has been warning of salmon disease outbreaks on the West Coast is taking the federal government to court for allegedly allowing farms to move infected fish to ocean pens.

The action, filed with the Federal Court by Ecojustice on behalf of Alexandra Morton, alleges the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) acted "unlawfully" by issuing a licence to Marine Harvest Canada Inc. to allow the farm to transfer fish carrying piscine reovirus (PRV).

Ms. Morton said she alerted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to the presence of the virus and is only resorting to legal action because the government did not act.

"It's sad we have to go to court to straighten these things out," she said at a news conference Wednesday.

A DFO spokesmen said he could not comment because the matter is before the courts.

Clare Backman, a spokesman for Marine Harvest, said techniques for detecting PRV are relatively new.

"Because of our discussion with her we are currently looking into the situation, but we don't have that information," he said when asked if Ms. Morton's allegations about the virus are correct.

Mr. Backman said PRV is a recently discovered virus about which little is known and the Marine Harvest fish appear healthy. "We are at a loss to know what symptoms we would even look for," he said.

PRV is not on DFO's list of reportable diseases, he said, and there is no proof it causes disease.

But Ms. Morton said the virus is associated with heart and skeletal muscle inflammation in fish. She said she first detected PRV last year when she tested samples of farmed salmon bought at Vancouver supermarkets.

In February, members of the Namgis First Nation, on northern Vancouver Island, told her the virus had been found at a Marine Harvest hatchery. The notice of application, which contains allegations not tested in court, claims 60 per cent of the hatchery fish were infected with PRV.

"I went to the Minister of Fisheries, I went to the director general of DFO Pacific Region, the province of British Columbia and Marine Harvest. I asked them, 'Please, don't put this virus in the water. It is too dangerous.' But they went ahead and did that," Ms. Morton said.

She said she was alarmed because the Marine Harvest net pens are on ocean routes used by sockeye salmon migrating from the Fraser River, where large numbers of wild fish have been mysteriously dying before spawning.

The Cohen Commission of Inquiry, which examined the collapse of sockeye stocks in the Fraser, warned that fish farms could be passing diseases to wild salmon. Ms. Morton said PRV could be to blame for the collapse of Fraser stocks.

"Piscine reovirus started in Norway [fish farms] and has spread rapidly. They've been unable to control it. It damages the muscles and the hearts of the fish to the point scientists don't think they can even make it to rivers, and if they do they might not be able to swim up the river [to spawn]," she said.

"We brought this lawsuit because in our opinion no one has the power to introduce diseased salmon into the ocean under Canadian fisheries laws," said Margot Venton, a lawyer with Ecojustice. "The fact Marine Harvest has done this, put diseased fish into a farm that is on the Fraser River migration route, is tremendously risky and most likely unlawful … and we say unfortunately the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans appears to have stood by and watched while they've played Russian roulette with the wild salmon population."

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