Alexandra Morton: Rule of law must be applied in Trudeau government management of West Coast fisheries

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      As the nation watches the epic stand off between a minister, a corporation and the prime minister’s office, the same drama is playing out here in B.C. between the minister of fisheries, a virus, a foreign industry, and wild salmon.

      On February 4, Justice Cecily Strickland of the Federal Court of Canada ruled that the minister of fisheries’ refusal to screen farm salmon for the blood virus piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) is against the law in Canada. She reaffirmed a 2015 Federal Court ruling—that the minister of fisheries must test farm salmon for this virus, a ruling ignored by four ministers; Gail Shea, Hunter Tootoo, Dominic LeBlanc, and Jonathan Wilkinson.

      Three days later, an “expert panel” appointed by DFO announced that PRV has minimal impact on the Fraser sockeye. However, a member of that panel, John Werring of the David Suzuki Foundation, responded that this was not the consensus of the panel, because not enough research existed to conclude that this virus is harmless to Canada’s most valuable wild salmon.

      A week later, Fisheries Minister Wilkinson, the MP for North Vancouver, did a one-on-one interview with Global TV, expressing his opinion that PRV is not harming wild salmon. However, Wilkinson’s opinion is a lesser standard than two Federal Court decisions that his department fought and lost. Whatever he believes personally, it is his duty as a federal minister to uphold the laws of the country.

      On February 18, Wilkinson was quoted saying “B.C.’s salmon farming industry should be shifted out of sensitive wild salmon migration pathways,” which would mean removing it from east Vancouver Island waters where one-third of all of Canada’s wild salmon migrate. This is also where most of the salmon farming industry is sited. The minister did not mention whether he would abide by the court and initiate PRV-screening of farm salmon.

      Three days later, he shied away from his statement about protecting wild salmon migration routes when he was quoted in the Cowichan Valley Citizen saying “People need to be convinced that aquaculture is environmental sound before the economic potential of fish farming can be realized,” and refused to comment on moving farms off migration routes.

      The next day he was quoted in Salmon Business saying “We need to get beyond this debate that nobody is winning right now.” Wilkinson blamed the two “camps” for not having the ability to have an appropriate dialogue. When pressed about moving the industry off wild salmon migration routes again, Wilkinson wouldn’t comment.

      This debate has been won, twice in Federal Court. Why not just test for the virus if the minister believes it is harmless?

      A year ago, Chris Watson, a lawyer for Marine Harvest, signed a statement to the Federal Court declaring “PRV has been found in all but one of Marine Harvest’s hatcheries.” This was two years after the first court ruling on screening farm salmon for PRV.

      At the same time Vincent Erenst, then managing director of Marine Harvest Canada, signed a statement to the Federal Court stating the obvious: if the “policy to allow fish with PRV to be transferred is successfully challenged, Marine Harvest’s legal right to transfer fish with PRV to its marine sites…will be undermined.” 

      He stated this would “severely impact Marine Harvest”. Well, that policy was successfully challenged and quashed. So now what?

      As anyone following the news over the past 30 years knows that the salmon farming debate has been ongoing issue, but this minister and this virus goes right to the heart of the matter. Is corporate influence pushing Canada’s ministers to the wrong side of the law?

      There is no doubt this Norwegian virus is a threat to wild salmon. Washington state recently ordered the destruction of 1.6 million Atlantic salmon because they were infected with PRV.  Government scientists report that:

      • PRV appears to cause Chinook salmon red blood cells to rupture en masse,
      • 50% of Chinook salmon runs in southern BC (where the farms are) are in decline
      • the beloved southern resident orca are sliding into extinction due to starvation caused by lack of Chinook salmon.

      Whatever the minister of fisheries is doing, it is not serving Canadians who want wild salmon and whales.  

      Wilkinson has until March 8 to appeal this recent decision, although the first decision would still stand and if he does not appeal, he must start screening farm salmon for PRV on June 4. If he finds the virus, infected farm salmon cannot be transferred into marine farms. This is the law.

      As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seeks to assure this country that his ministers are following the rule of law, this one has four months to come into compliance.