By Chief Bob Chamberlin
When Canada’s Federal Court recently ruled against the minister of fisheries and oceans and disallowed putting Atlantic salmon smolts infected with the Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) into open-net fish farms, the purpose was clear: to save our wild Pacific salmon from a disease as deadly to them as smallpox.
But did the minister listen to the court? Or work to achieve the goal of protecting wild Pacific salmon?
No. Instead, he ignored the science and decided to just adjust the "risk threshold" and continue a policy that put more fish in harm’s way.
It’s not the first time Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has gone this route to fail our fish stocks.
Many acknowledge that Fisheries and Oceans Canada's mismanagement caused the collapse of the East Coast cod fishery. In testimony before the House of Commons, one DFO employee described a routine tactic in that mismanagement:
The politicians and the senior bureaucrats would run away, pick the very best numbers, and come out and present them in the best light. They would hide any negative numbers… Any attempt by anyone on the inside to present a different view was absolutely quashed.
Cherry-picking science to serve political agendas helped DFO drive the cod fishery to collapse. Old habits die hard at DFO. But now, the minister isn't just cherry-picking what the science tells him, he is cherry-picking what the court says as well.
The court quashed the PRV policy on four grounds. The minister failed to reasonably interpret his core mandate under the Fisheries Act—the protection and conservation of fish.
The minister did not adhere to the precautionary principle—to anticipate, prevent, and attack the causes of environmental degradation and not use scientific uncertainty to excuse inaction. He breached his constitutional duty to consult and accommodate the 'Namgis First Nation. And in a finding that beggars belief, when regulating PRV, the virus responsible for one of leading causes of death in fish farms globally, the minister failed to consider the risk PRV poses to wild Pacific salmon.
British Columbians should be dismayed and alarmed by the minister's astonishing failure to manage the risk PRV poses. DFO is not executing its core mandate—the protection and conservation of fish. DFO is not adhering to the precautionary principle, which was enshrined in law to prevent another fisheries collapse.
DFO is not even considering the health of wild Pacific salmon. In response, and true to form, the minister ignores this profound regulatory dysfunction and picks a small cherry from the court's 201-page judgement: this can all be fixed by a technical recalibration of a risk threshold.
What was that risk threshold the court found unlawful and the minister dare not mention? The minister argued the law "only prohibit[ed] transfers of 'fish' where the genetic diversity, species, or ecosystem of a stock or conservation unit may be harmed such that they cannot sustain biodiversity and the continuance of evolutionary and natural production processes" (italics provided by the court). Until the court said "no", the minister was prepared to allow harm right up to a hair's breadth of the failure of the biodiversity, evolution, and natural production processes of wild salmon or the ecosystems they rely on—essentially, the extinction of wild Pacific salmon or the collapse of B.C.'s marine ecosystems. A level of harm that would dwarf the collapse of the cod fishery.
Unsurprisingly, on the day the minister released his interpretation of the court's findings, DFO staff dutifully planted two papers on farmed Atlantic salmon for him to cherry-pick. One attempts to cast doubt on a large body of international research saying the PRV causes disease in salmon and said despite PRV causing heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) a small number of farmed fish with HSMI were not infected with PRV. The other said that a specific strain of farmed Atlantic salmon did not experience reduced cardiovascular capacity when infected with PRV.
The minister will likely again cherry-pick this research on farmed Atlantic salmon to assess the risk to wild Pacific salmon, even though his own expert testified that doing so is unsound. Cherry-picking those two papers would be tantamount to Health Canada saying we shouldn't take precautions against tobacco because, after all, not everyone who smokes tobacco gets lung cancer and not everyone who gets lung cancer smokes tobacco.
If the past predicts the future, the minister will undoubtedly prefer these papers on farmed Atlantic salmon over research from DFO scientists concluding that the exact same strain of PRV causing HSMI on B.C. fish farms likely causes the red blood cells of endangered Chinook salmon to rupture en masse. Some believe this finding is consistent with a foreign virus jumping to a new species.
Faced with this evidence that PRV may be wild Pacific salmon's smallpox, the minister sits on his hands.
Meanwhile, Washington State has twice prohibited fish farms from putting PRV-infected smolts into the water. In December 2018, B.C. and three Broughton area First Nations recommended that Atlantic smolts should not go into 17 fish farms in those First Nations' territories unless they were free of pathogens such as PRV. B.C.'s two largest fish farms agreed to cooperate with that recommendation for those 17 farms.
It appears nearly everyone is ready to protect and conserve wild Pacific salmon. Except the minister—he has cherries to pick.