A new study conducted by the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative (SSHI) says the piscine reovirus (PRV), the virus found in farmed Atlantic salmon, has now been linked to disease in Pacific Chinook salmon.
The SSHI is an initiative made up of scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Genome B.C., and the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF).
The findings show that the same strain of PRV, known to cause heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) in farmed Atlantic salmon, is causing Chinook salmon to develop jaundice – anemia, a condition that ruptures red blood cells, causing fish to turn yellow and organ failure.
Read the report here: PRV Virus May Cause Disease in Chinook Salmon
The disease could cause a serious threat to wild salmon migrating passed open-net fish farms in coastal waters in B.C.
“This is a demonstration that the same virus that causes HSMI in Atlantic salmon causes a disease, but a different disease in Chinook Salmon,” said Brian Riddell, CEO of the PSF.
“It’s a risk to wild salmon because it shows that PRV can cause a potentially fatal disease in Pacific Salmon, and therefore we are now recommending all open-net salmon farms be moved to closed containment.”
“The PSF was formed in 1987 to ensure the sustainability of Wild Pacific salmon.”
The independent charity has never taken a direct position for or against open-net salmon farms until now.
“The basis of being sustainable is to have minimal or no effect on wild salmon,” said Riddell.
“Although PRV is in the natural environment, what we are now making our decision on is that PRV is not widely distributed in the wild. We sampled thousands of Chinook in the wild and we see an incidence of seven per cent or less, so the notion that PRV is natural and everywhere is not true. The incidence in the farmed fish we sampled was 75 to 80 per cent.”
Riddell is replying to a comment made by the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA).
“PRV occurs naturally in the ocean”, said Shawn Hall, a spokesperson for the association.
“There are millions of viruses in one drop of ocean water, that’s just natural, and most don’t cause any problems,” he said. “There’s been a lot of research done on this in Canada and around the world, and there has been no impact found on wild fish populations from salmon farming.”
The BCSFA hosted a workshop with leading scientists on PRV five months ago and produced a report that doesn’t support the new study’s findings.
Read the report here: Exploring PRV and HSMI in Europe and British Columbia – Workshop Report
“If the report’s findings were accurate, our fish would be unhealthy, but in fact they are very healthy” said Hall.
“This science needs to be looked at with a critical eye. The conclusions it draws are speculation at best.”
Industry, governments, and scientists have long debated the impacts of farmed fish on wild salmon in B.C.
Something First Nations say they are tired of.
“The science is in. There is no time for more research, more panels, more studies”, said Hereditary Chief Ernest Alfred of ‘Namgis First Nation. “For far too long we have seen scientists and government take the side of the aquaculture industry, but this news from the PSF is a sign of the times.
“There is a shift happening, not only in BC waters, but across the country where the pressure is on the government to make significant changes in the way they deal with the aquaculture industry.”
Alfred has been occupying Swanson Island fish farm near Alert Bay, B.C. for over 260 days.
He said that the government doesn’t have a choice but to finally take all the science seriously.
“The solution is so simple, we cannot believe this has been going on for so long. DFO must develop stronger restrictions and start implementing the movement toward close containment right away,” he said.
The ‘Namgis, along with a collective of First Nations on the Broughton Archipelago in B.C., want to see all fish farms in the area removed.
They’re putting pressure on the NDP government to pull fish farm tenures, which many are up for renewal in June.
Chief Don Svanvik of ‘Namgis First Nation is currently involved in government to government conversations with the province, and although he’s hopeful, in March the nation applied for a judicial review of the federal policy that does not require farmed fish to be tested for PRV before they are transfered.
“We didn’t have a choice but to take the protection of wild fish into our own hands”, said Svanvik.
“The Minister has ignored the science, the law, and our repeated communications. Nothing seems to make DFO pause and consider the risks.”
But in an email to APTN News, DFO re-confirmed their commitment to protecting the health of wild salmon.
“DFO scientists are conducting and will continue to conduct research and examine all studies on diseases in farmed and wild salmon, so that we can effectively monitor and protect the health of salmon across the country,” said the statement from the government.
“To date, there are no documented cases of jaundice/anemia in wild Pacific salmon. DFO will continue to monitor the health of wild salmon populations in Canada and seek to clarify if wild Pacific salmon are susceptible to jaundice, anemia disease.
The ‘Namgis’ hearing in court with DFO is scheduled for September, which is too late to protect the migrating wild fish this season.
“It’s hard to have any faith in the Minister and the system,” said Svanvik.
“But I’m cautiously optimistic. There’s really no choice, this all has to be dealt with the right way. And that means the salmon farms have to go.”