Salmon Confidential – A Follow Up

Lynsey Kitching

This story is a follow-up to last week’s piece about Alexandra Morton and her film Salmon Confidential.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is sticking to their guns regarding their protocols to protect BC’s wild salmon—in complete dismissal of the data and information provided to the department since the mid-80s from Alexandra Morton about the state of the wild sockeye salmon run.

When asked what the DFO thinks about the film (Salmon Confidential) and how the department is portrayed? The DFO answered, “The Government of Canada has stringent federal regulations in place to protect Canada’s aquatic species (farmed and wild) from disease and will continue to work diligently with our partners to ensure they continue to be strictly enforced.”

Did that answer the question?

The DFO then stated to Tumbler Ridge News, “The fact remains that there has never been a confirmed case of ISA in British Columbia salmon – farmed or wild.  Anyone who suspects a case of ISA must report it to CFIA. CFIA will then investigate. The disease must be confirmed using international World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) recognized protocols.”

Recently, the final report for the Cohen Commission, which is a federal inquiry into all factors affecting the health of the wild salmon, was released. The commission concluded, “The most that can be said at present is that a plausible mechanism has been identified, creating a risk that ISAv or an ISAv-like virus may have affected the health of Pacific salmon stocks for the past few decades, or that it may mutate in certain circumstances to a more virulent form.”

This conclusion was drawn after the commission heard testimony from numerous experts and scientists in the field. Their data is within the OIE recognized protocols.

It is the responsibility of the DFO to investigate and monitor diseases (as they stated), which could potentially be harming wild salmon.

ON the DFO website it states, “The NAAHP [National Aquatic Animal Health Program] improves protection of Canadian aquaculture and wild fisheries from diseases to maintain the country’s competitive access to seafood trade markets.”

However the reason the Cohan Commission was unable to fully state whether wild sockeye salmon have been affected by fish farms on their migration route was because there wasn’t enough research done by the DFO into the pathogen transmission from fish farm into wild salmon. The report reads, “DFO has not carried out research to look at the effects of pathogens from fish farms on Fraser River sockeye. In short, there are insufficient data—almost no data—on cause-and-effect relationships, and insufficient data (in terms of a time series) to look for correlations between fish farm factors and sockeye productivity.”

The DFO was then asked what action they have taken to remove the fish farms from the migration route of the sockeye salmon. Their response was as follows, “The National Aquatic Animal Health Program combined with DFO’s fish health regulatory requirements on aquaculture operations under the BC Aquaculture Regulatory Program ensure that wild salmon are protected. The Department continues to work with CFIA on the ongoing evaluation of risks to fish and fish habitat.”

The Cohen Commission surmised, “I find that the evidence does not allow me to conclude whether the infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAv) or an ISAv-like virus currently exists in Fraser River sockeye, or whether such an ISAv or ISAv-like virus, if present, is endemic to British Columbia waters or has been introduced. At most, a plausible mechanism has been identified, creating a risk that ISAv or an ISAv-like virus may have affected the health of Pacific salmon stocks for the past few decades.”

Later on the Commission decided, “I accept the evidence that Atlantic salmon farms may be a significant source of Leps infection for outmigrating smolts. However, the most recent numbers for prevalence and intensity of Leps on Fraser River sockeye juveniles are not a cause for concern. Salmon farms may also be one of many sources of Caligus infection, but there is an absence of scientific information about the effect of Caligus infection on sockeye. Sea lice may act as a vector for other pathogens causing disease, but I accept the evidence that transmission through water is a more effective means of transmission. I am satisfied that sea lice acting alone did not cause the decline of Fraser River sockeye, but sea lice acting in combination with factors such as other pathogens or increasing water temperature may have contributed to the decline.

“I accept the undisputed evidence that there is some risk posed to Fraser River sockeye from diseases on salmon farms, but I cannot make a determination as to the precise level of risk. Therefore, precaution would suggest assuming that the risk is not insignificant. I accept the evidence that scientists need at least another ten years of regulatory data before they can find relationships (if they exist) between salmon farm factors and Fraser River sockeye productivity.”

Again, it is the DFO’s responsibility to collect data to keep the wild salmon safe from pathogens and unfortunately they didn’t have the data to provide to the Cohen Commission.

So what does BC and the citizens of the province have to gain from salmon farming? Well, lots and lots of money.

The BC Salmon Farmers Association says, “Our industry employs over 6,000 people in direct and indirect jobs, and contributes more than $800 million annually to the provincial economy. Today, we produce about 75,000 metric tonnes per year, making farm-raised salmon BC’s largest agricultural export.”

This translates into $511.5 million in revenue back to the province between salmon and other finfish exports, but mostly from salmon.

So, the Cohen Commission has said there has to be ten more years of data collection to make it absolutely evident the salmon farms are harming the wild salmon, even though the DFO has been getting letters about the wild salmon population decline and the potential link to fish farms on their migration route for over two decades already.

There is hope however, as the DFO was quick to point out, “Recent returns of Fraser River sockeye are equal to long-term averages, and represent a significant improvement in the rates of return from 2007–2009. In the last three years, Fraser River sockeye have returned at rates four to six times higher than they did from 2007–2009.”

However, due to research presented at the Cohen Commission, these stats are seen to be insignificant in the grand scheme of the wild salmon population.

The Commission stated, “What do we make of these numbers? Has the decline reversed itself? It should be remembered that this recent rebound was not consistent across all stocks—many small stocks from the Upper Fraser River have not fared well. Also, two years’ worth of data does not establish a trend, but at the same time the returns of those two years cannot be ignored,” the report continued, “They found that most Fraser River and many non-Fraser River sockeye stocks, both in Canada and the United States, show a decrease in productivity, especially over the past decade and often also over a period of decline starting in the late 1980s or early 1990s. This decrease includes several stocks that migrate along the west coast of Vancouver Island.”