The Counter Arguments to Salmon Confidential

Lynsey Kitching

When watching a documentary, it is always important to keep your mind critical. This rings true for the film Salmon Confidential.

This article is the third story surrounding the film and its focus on the wild salmon in BC, how the government is managing their health, and the impact of salmon farming on their migration route.

Dr. Gary Marty works for the BC Ministry of Agriculture as a diagnostic veterinarian pathologist for fish. If the fish farm vets notice a slight increase in mortality they send him samples for diagnosis, among his other responsibilities. He was also featured, in quite a bad light, in the film Salmon Confidential.

When asked about the documentary he said, “I was disappointed the video didn’t offer a balanced report of the issues at hand.”

And the issues are piled high and growing.

The film discussed a virus called ISA, which was first found in the Atlantic waters and was responsible for a serious loss of fish.

The film states this virus along with the potential of other viruses have been found in BC wild salmon as well as farmed salmon, and the government is attempting to keep this a secret.

Dr. Marty says, “During the Cohen Commission hearings, Dr. Kibenge described ISA. It’s a disease of farmed Atlantic salmon and as far as we know there has never been any disease that’s occurred in pacific salmon as a result of natural exposure to the ISA virus. Pacific salmon aren’t even susceptible to any known strains we know of ISA.”

Though the Atlantic version of ISA has yet to be formally documented in wild salmon, the film shows testimony from Dr. Kristi Miller (scientist for the DFO), Dr. Nylund (International ISA virus researcher from the University of Bergen) and Dr. Kibenge, a scientist at the OIE Reference Lab on P.E.I. The film shows their testimony that their testing did come up with at least one positive test for ISA in pacific wild salmon.

In the documentary Dr. Kibenge’s testimony states when he tested 48 salmon from the west coast he found two fish who, in the test had the virus, however, newer developments quote him as saying perhaps there is a western form of ISA.

Dr. Marty says, “That is what Dr. Kibenge thinks. He thinks there might be a native strain that we just haven’t seen here before,” he continues, “We have no evidence of the disease ISA. If you get a positive result, but your patient does not have the disease, then you question whether the test result is correct. ISA is not a disease of pacific salmon, so they just don’t get the disease.”

Dr. Kibenge’s lab has recently been audited by the OIE. The press release from the OIE states, “After different member countries pointed out questionable diagnostic results emanating from an OIE Reference Laboratory for Infectious Salmon Anemia located at Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC) in Canada, the OIE decided to conduct an audit…Conclusions of the audit were unfavourable and showed that a series of weaknesses in the system have a direct impact on the quality of diagnosis conducted by the OIE Reference Laboratory at AVC.”

Results of the audit will be available this month.

So, who monitors the fish farms in BC and who monitors the health of the wild sockeye?

Well, the companies themselves have staff vets who monitor their fish and from the government side the DFO has a fish health monitoring program where they visit 30 farms every quarter. With only 60 active farms, they are visiting each site twice a year.

This monitoring is the worldwide standard as Dr. Marty says, “The World Health Organization recognizes governments as the competent authority on disease.”

However, this amount of monitoring is not done on the wild salmon and it seems we still have much to learn about disease, especially when it comes to salmon.

In reference to the disease Piscine reovirus, which was brought up in the film Dr. Marty says, “The challenge of course when you have 80 to 100 percent of fish with a virus, anytime you test a fish for a virus, say reovirus, you are going to find it. The challenge for medical science is trying to determine if that virus is causing the disease or does it just happen to be in the animal that got the disease. When I looked at the 625 fish, it wasn’t helping me explain disease and that is why I put it as a low priority.”

Though the documentary has been under the microscope in terms of having withheld test results and altering Dr. Miller’s testimony at the Cohen Commission, the film is being endorsed by David Suzuki.

Suzuki said in a recent interview with CBC, “I think the important thing about this film is it raises a lot of questions about who’s looking after the most iconic species on the West Coast. I would have thought the proper response is, ‘look, those are very serious allegations, we better investigate and find out. Why isn’t the government now responding to the commission it established? We don’t see any impact.”

He also pointed to the amount of waste being created by the fish farms and its potential impact on the wild salmon’s migration.

In response to his thoughts Dr. Marty said, “The wild salmon harvest is the highest ever in the history of the world. Our choice really isn’t wild salmon versus farmed salmon. The amount of farmed salmon has increased continuously to the point that now we are up to two million tonnes of farmed salmon a year compared with wild salmon at one million tonnes. Certainly farmed salmon would have as much waste as wild salmon. Two different people looked at this for the Cohen Commission and they concluded that the effect was just local. Once you get a few 100 metres from the farm there is no detectable effect of the fish poop.”

If only we could teach the wild salmon to stay 100 metres away from the farms.

Though the salmon farming industry says the fish farms are not causing harm to the wild salmon, the government does have some options on the table for protection of the wild salmon. Dr. Marty says, “One option is to move all farmed salmon into land. The other is the move them into closed containment facilities that are still in the water.”

There was one failed attempt at created a closed containment facility in the water, as it didn’t survive a storm and there is also a new closed containment facility on land near Campbell River BC. Dr. Marty says, “They just stared rearing fish this year. It costs four or five times as much to setup a farm on land as in the water.”

In Dr. Marty’s professional opinion, do fish farms have a negative impact on the wild salmon? He answered, “All the data I have seen tells me there is minimal impact on wild salmon and when we do see an impact, say with sea lice ten years ago, we can make management changes in the farms that then result in decreases to whatever effects we are able to find. That was the conclusions of most of the disease experts,” he continues, “I think all the scientists agree that sea lice from fish farms did have an effect on individual juvenile pink salmon…other than that, we have no evidence there is an effect.”

He goes on to explain the findings from a study done between 2007 and 2008. He says, “We looked at 500 juvenile pink salmons’ complete diagnostic makeup. At the same time I was looking through our audits for farmed salmon. What we found was the wild salmon have a certain set of diseases and the farmed salmon have a certain set of diseases. The only thing we found in both groups was sea lice. Everyone agrees now and since then, sea lice have been under control.”

Though Ian Roberts of Marine Harvest is not a disease expert, he has been working as a salmon farmer in BC for over 20 years. He says, “If there was evidence to suggest that we are doing more harm than good, I would stop being a salmon farmer, but that’s not the case. At the end of the day, I am confident that salmon aquaculture is important, not only to the economy but conservation of wild salmon.”

He continues, “Our fish are very healthy because we have a very high survival rate of over 90 percent. Atlantic salmon were introduced to BC and Washington State in the early 1900s in the millions for sport fishing. The Atlantic salmon never took to the waters here and never became colonized; they couldn’t survive naturally out here. That is why governments felt comfortable allowing salmon farmers to keep Atlantic salmon contained in nets.”

Roberts explains that technology is advancing and with more technology comes the opportunity to move the farms farther out to sea.

In relation to the film and the cover up accusations towards the DFO and the CFIA Roberts says, “We have confidence in the CFIA to identify the bugs in our food and our fish. They have not found ISA on the west coast. That positive has never happened. If CFIA takes over a file and concludes it was negative, then those initial findings were a false positive. That is the case here.”

What about those people who are concerned about the potential conflict of interest between governments monitoring of our food, when if a virus such as ISA was confirmed it would destroy the industry?

Roberts says, “People are entitled to opinion, but I hope those opinions are based on fact. Some people have chosen, for whatever reasons they may have, to ignore the facts and continue to talk of conspiracies and mass collusion. I’m not going to change their minds, but hope that others will take the time to learn the facts about salmon farming because it’s a very important business in BC. I have confidence in the people put in charge to look after the quality and safety of our food. These people require a code of ethics within their fields of expertise and I do trust their judgment.”