Alexandra Morton: A virus, an email, and the survival of B.C.'s wild salmon

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      Exactly two months ago, members of the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation boarded the salmon farms in their territory near Tofino, carrying underwater cameras on poles.

      One of them, Giselle Martin, carried a carved mask, appearing like an ancient supernatural being staring down at the captive salmon.

      Their footage revealed emaciated, yellow salmon drifting listlessly among their plump pen-mates. These fish are ground zero in the escalating battle to protect wild salmon from a Norwegian virus.

      In 2011, Creative Salmon knocked on Dr. Kristi Miller’s door at the DFO Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. They needed help figuring out why the Chinook salmon in their farms were turning yellow and dying. Miller is head of the DFO Molecular Genetics Laboratory in Nanaimo. 

      Miller detected piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV, a new virus discovered only a few months earlier, as the cause of heart and skeletal muscle inflammation—HSMI—a disease spreading unchecked through the salmon farming industry in Norway.

      PRV uses the red blood cells in salmon to make copies of itself. In Atlantic salmon, the cells vent the virus like steam, and it inflames muscle tissue.

      However, in Pacific salmon Miller found that the cells filled with the virus until they burst, en masse. The resulting release of haemoglobin overwhelmed the fish’s liver, causing jaundice.

      The oddly yellow Chinook died slowly, releasing the virus into the surrounding waters. Wild Chinook near these farms are in collapse despite fishing closures.

      It is not at all surprising that PRV made its way into B.C. Thirty million Atlantic salmon were imported into B.C. before any knew that the virus existed.  

      How did it get into farmed Chinook salmon? We don’t know for sure, but millions of infected Atlantic salmon are shedding the highly contagious virus in neighbouring Ahousaht territory.

      Video recorded by the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation showed juvenile wild salmon inside aquaculture pens near Tofino.
      Sea Shepherd Society

      Miller was not allowed to publish her discovery of PRV in B.C. In 2013, the team of scientists I work with published the first report of PRV in B.C., revealing a genetic link to Norway.

      In 2017, we reported that 94 percent of farm salmon in markets are infected and that the virus has spread coastwide. But it is significantly more prevalent in wild salmon caught near salmon farms.

      We also reported significantly fewer PRV-infected salmon in the upper versus the lower Fraser River. We urged more research be done on this, because this data suggests that many infected salmon were not making it upriver. 

      Miller reported PRV-infected Chilko sockeye were less likely to reach their spawning grounds.

      Norwegian scientists also suggest that PRV is negatively impacting upriver migrations. DFO has remained silent on this issue.

      In 2013, I received a tip that MOWI (formerly Marine Harvest) was transferring PRV-infected young Atlantic salmon from a hatchery in Sayward to farms off Port Hardy. I thought this had to be illegal, but it wasn’t.  

      I went to Ecojustice and it discovered there were two conflicting laws: one prohibited transfer of infected fish and the other left the decision up to the companies. We went to court and changed that.

      In 2015, the judge quashed the conditions of licence that allowed the companies to make this decision and ordered the minister to begin screening farm salmon for PRV. MOWI filed an appeal, arguing that the virus was harmless.

      MOWI and the government scientists in charge of auditing farm salmon health copublished scientific papers together reporting that PRV does not cause disease in B.C. 

      However, when Miller and her team gained access to just two farms and found that PRV is causing the same disease in B.C. as in Norway.

      MOWI and the minister of fisheries dropped their appeal. 

      Then four ministers of fisheries, spanning two governments, simply ignored the court ruling and refused to screen farm salmon for PRV. If they didn’t know if farm fish were infected, there was no stopping the farmers from moving the fish into ocean pens.

      When I sued the minister again, MOWI petitioned the court to join the minister as a co-defendant in a pitch stating that all but one of their hatcheries are infected. They admitted this lawsuit would “severely impact” them. So many farm salmon were infected that their business was threatened if Canada’s laws were upheld. 

      In 2018, Washington state passed legislation banning PRV-infected farm salmon.

      The ‘Namgis First Nation of Alert Bay filed a lawsuit to keep infected farm fish out of their territory. Our cases were heard together and we won.

      On the court-appointed deadline, the minister announced that he will do some limited PRV testing, but more importantly, now he is going to change the law so if they find the virus, the infected farm salmon can still go into marine pens.

      DFO would only accept science that says PRV is weak and of “minimal risk” to wild salmon.

      Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has written that he favours an "area-based approach to managing aquaculture".

      I did a deep dive into the internal DFO conversation on PRV, through the Freedom of Information Act. I wanted to know how they reconciled ignoring the evidence that PRV is harming salmon in B.C. 

      I found an email that calls into question DFO’s understanding of the threat of PRV to wild salmon.

      In 2016, a DFO virologist in its aquaculture division sent a PRV sample to a leading virologist in Norway to find out if it was capable of causing disease in salmon.

      On April 4, 2017 the Norwegian virologist wrote back:  “…we would like to inform you about the first outcome of the experimental challenge with the B.C. isolate you send us...

      Then the next 11 lines of text are redacted. We can’t see how virulent the virus was. Then he writes:

      I would not recommend to use energy about the question if PRV causes HSMI or not...

      Does this mean that DFO has known for three years that the virus causing disease, making it more than a “minimal risk”? I have asked ministers and the scientists involved for the information in this email. Silence.

      DFO took its conversation with the Norwegian virologist off the DFO server, so there is no further record on this critical matter.

      Alexandra Morton wants to know what was deleted from email correspondence between Canadian and Norwegian scientists.

      Today, Canadians have been ordered to give up income and food to protect Chinook salmon to rescue the southern resident orcas from extinction.

      A rock slide into the Fraser River this summer brought a further DFO order that fishermen must release big Chinook salmon, as they might be the only ones powerful enough to swim past the slide. 

      Despite this admission, DFO is ignoring the warnings of independent, DFO, and Norwegian scientists that PRV appears to weaken salmon to the point that they can’t get up a river. 

      The minister of fisheries is allowing three Norwegian companies to expose Fraser River salmon to a virus that appears to impede their ability to reach their spawning grounds and he wants to write this privilege into law.

      Exactly one month ago on July 11, I launched a website to make it easy for people to ask the minister to release the unredacted email, so we can see what DFO knows about how virulent PRV is before he legalizes PRV-infected farm salmon.

      What is it that we are not allowed to know?

      The evidence suggests that the future of wild salmon in B.C. depends on allowing them to come and go to sea without being infected with PRV from salmon farms.

      Alexandra Morton is an independent biologist living and researching in Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw/'Namgis territory.