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An Atlantic salmon during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. on Oct. 31, 2018.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Conservationists are accusing the federal Fisheries Department of suppressing information about a virus that may be causing heart, skeletal and muscle disease in farmed salmon in British Columbia – an illness they say is spreading beyond the farms and endangering wild salmon populations.

The disease, called heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, or HSMI, is caused by the piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), which has been detected in B.C. salmon farms. The federal government has known for more than five years that PRV found in the province can lead to HSMI. In 2016, Espen Rimstad, a Norway-based expert on fish viruses, told the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in an e-mail that samples of the virus the government had sent him from B.C. had caused the disease in fish under laboratory conditions.

The e-mail was obtained by Alexandra Morton, an environmentalist and biologist who has spent 30 years researching the impact of fish farms on wild salmon. Ms. Morton made an access-to-information request in 2017, received a redacted version of the e-mail in 2019, then appealed those redactions and received the entire document this summer.

B.C. First Nations and conservation groups say Ottawa failed to disclose the e-mail in a number of risk assessments and consultations about the impact of fish farms in B.C., even though it had a duty to do so. Fishery regulations say the Department of Fisheries and Oceans can’t allow fish farms to be stocked with fish that carry disease.

Wild First, an advocacy group, alerted the House of Commons committee on fisheries and oceans about the e-mail in a July written submission. The document said the government had “suppressed this research,” and that it “did not reference, ignored, or avoided disclosing this evidence in its risk assessments and advice to DFO decision-makers, and in consultations with First Nations.”

“By suppressing Dr. Rimstad’s research, DFO avoided its regulatory obligations in order to benefit industry,” Wild First wrote. It and other groups like it oppose open-net pen fish farms, where commercial fish swim in enclosures in the ocean. They want salmon farms to be moved away from the open water.

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Tony Allard, Wild First’s chair, said in an interview that the government had tried to cover up the contents of Dr. Rimstad’s e-mail by redacting it. “DFO knew PRV causes disease and let industry stock their farms with fish infected with PRV anyway,” he said.

The original recipient of Dr. Rimstad’s e-mail was Kyle Garver, a Fisheries Department scientist. In an e-mail to The Globe, Dr. Garver vehemently denied that his department had tried to cover up Dr. Rimstad’s research into PRV, and said hearing of such accusations was “frustrating” because the opposite was true.

He said the department and Dr. Rimstad had followed up on the “preliminary experiment” with further studies.

“This preliminary finding was by no means suppressed, but rather discussed with other scientists and managers, and follow-up studies were actively pursued,” he said. “These studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and my group continues to investigate PRV and will continue to make these findings available to the public.”

Dr. Rimstad told The Globe that there should be more research into the impact of PRV on different varieties of salmon. He said in laboratory tests the virus has been found to have little effect on Pacific sockeye salmon.

He cautioned against extrapolating a result from a laboratory test on one species to the entire wild Pacific salmon population, which includes five species in B.C.

“One should be very careful in assuming that findings from controlled experimental settings will be valid for a natural, wild setting,” he said. “The conditions of an experimental challenge in an experimental station where the fish are treated well, living in a controlled environment, no natural enemies around, et cetera, are quite different from the survival of the fittest that wild fish experience.”

PRV can cause ruptured blood cells and organ damage in fish, according to Gideon Mordecai, a marine biologist and virologist at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Fisheries and Oceans.

Brian Kingzett, director of science and policy for the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, an industry group, said there is no scientific evidence that PRV has harmed the wild salmon population in B.C. He added that fish farms provide 90 per cent of the salmon eaten in Canada and are closely monitored for viruses and other pathogens that could pass to wild species.

“There is no body of evidence that suggests that the form of PRV found in British Columbia causes population-level effects of HSMI on wild salmon,” he said. “Salmon aquaculture can contribute to taking pressure off stocks of wild salmon.”

Fish farms in B.C. employ more than 4,700 people and contribute $1.2-billion in economic activity annually, according to the association.

Ms. Morton said when three fish farms were removed from the migration path of Ahta River pink salmon, the fish’s numbers increased more than 11-fold in one year.

“I have no doubt of the farms’ effects on wild salmon’s ability to survive in the wild. I have seen this with my own eyes,” she said. “The fish that went past the farms had pale gills, popped eyes and darkened skin. But when the farms were removed, the pink salmon that swam by looked fat and beautiful.”

Namgis First Nation, which has relied on salmon for thousands of years in B.C., launched a successful legal challenge against the Fisheries Department for not protecting wild salmon from the virus. In 2019, the Federal Court found that the government’s PRV policy did not fully adhere to the precautionary principle – the idea that policy-makers should not wait for scientific certainty before they act to prevent potential harm.

Bob Chamberlin, chair of the Wild Salmon Alliance, a group of First Nations from across B.C., said wild salmon are crucial to Indigenous culture in the province and must be protected from diseases spread from farmed fish. “This is about food security for First Nations across B.C.,” he added.

Erik Nosaluk, a spokesperson for Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, said there are “still knowledge gaps” about the impact of PRV on wild Pacific populations. He added that wild Pacific salmon are facing “unprecedented threats,” and that the government is taking action to protect them.

“That includes reducing or eliminating all manageable risk to wild Pacific salmon populations, by transitioning away from open-net pen salmon aquaculture in B.C.’s coastal waters,” he said.