Feds wrong to allow transfer of diseased salmon to fish farms in B.C., Federal Court rules

Biologist Alexandra Morton wins case against fisheries minister and Marine Harvest Canada

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      It was a case that, as the Federal Court put it, had “many red herrings”.

      In the end, the judge homed in on the real issue, with a ruling favourable to the long-term survival of the iconic wild Pacific salmon.

      A federal court has nullified rules that allowed fish farms to transfer diseased stock to open pens in the ocean.

      Judge Donald Rennie on May 6 rendered the decision on a petition for judicial review that was brought forward by Ecojustice lawyers on behalf of biologist Alexandra Morton.

      Morton lives in the Broughton Archipelago, where many fish farms on the B.C. coast are found.

      In March 2013, Marine Harvest Canada Inc., which has licence from the minister of fisheries and oceans, transferred young salmon or smolts from its hatchery to its Shelter Bay fish farm.

      Not too long after in June 2013, the fish tested positive for piscine reovirus (PRV).

      Citing expert evidence, Judge Rennie wrote that PRV is the viral precursor to heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI), an infectious disease found in farmed salmon.

      “First identified in Norway in 1999, HSMI is now prevalent throughout Norwegian salmon farming operations. HSMI was discovered in Scotland in 2005, and more recently in Chile and Canada,” Rennie noted.

      The judge went on to point out, “Although HSMI has not been found in wild salmon, PRV is now found in 14% of the wild salmon population of the Norwegian coast.”

      In his ruling, Rennie struck down two conditions in Marine Harvest’s aquaculture licence for being contrary to the Fisheries (General) Regulations (FGRs).

      One of these conditions allows the licensee to transfer fish if the stock “shows no signs of clinical disease requiring treatment”.

      “The condition contradicts the plain language of section 56(b) [of the FGR],” the judge wrote. “Section 56(b) stipulates that no transfer may take place if they have ‘any disease or disease agent’ that may be harmful to the transfer of fish. The licence condition, in contrast, allows transfers unless the fish show signs of clinical disease requiring treatment.”

      The other condition allows the licensee to do a transfer of fish from a stock with disease if the facility veterinarian deems it as low risk.

      But according to Rennie, “This licence condition undoubtedly conflicts with section 56(b) of the FGRs and the regulatory duty imposed on the Minister to allow transfer only where the fish ‘do not have any disease or disease agent that may be harmful to the protection and conservation of fish’.”

      Rennie suspended his judgment for four months to allow Fisheries and Oceans Canada to fix the rules.

      In his ruling, Rennie also recalled the report made by Bruce Cohen following the former B.C. Supreme Court justice’s inquiry into the decline of the sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.

      “Significantly,” Rennie wrote, “Justice Cohen found that there is some risk posed to wild sockeye salmon from diseases on fish farms and ensuring the health of wild stocks should be ‘DFO’s [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] number one priority in conducting fish health work’.”



      Kelly Obuck

      May 8, 2015 at 8:31am

      It's strange how the judge based his decision on incorrect facts. PRvirus has never been confirmed as a "prescursor" to any fish disease, and HSMI has never been detected in Canada.

      In fact, PRvirus was detected in fish long before salmon farming was even dreamed about in BC.

      In future, the judge might actually want to read the evidence before sharing his opinion.

      Dave Porter

      May 9, 2015 at 6:28am

      Please do some research or at least read up on some basic science instead of parroting press releases. Carrying a virus does not constitute being 'diseased'. If that were the case, all wild sockeye salmon would be 'diseased' as they naturally carry IHNv but are usually not affected by it. Also, a contradictory study was introduced at the hearings that indicated PRV has been detected in wild Pacific salmon since the 1970's, which was before salmon were ever farmed here.

      Martin Dunphy

      May 9, 2015 at 12:44pm

      Dave Porter:

      Please read the article. That is the wording used by the judge. Perhaps you want to take it up with him instead of the reporter who is quoting him. The "contradictory study" was also obviously of insufficient weight to influence his decision.
      Maybe you would like to appeal?

      alex morton

      May 9, 2015 at 2:54pm

      Kelly Obuck and Dave Porter - First of all the science IS saying PRV causes the disease HSMI "Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) belongs to the Reoviridae family and is the only known fish virus related to the Orthoreovirus genus. The virus is the causative agent of heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI), an emerging disease in farmed Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.)." http://www.veterinaryresearch.org/content/45/1/35 Second, you can play the word game - virus vs disease, but it is a mute point. The salmon farming industry is no longer allowed to make the decision to put PRV-infected fish in the water. If the fish farmers feel they have to have PRV-infected fish, Minister Gail Shea is going to have to get a little dirty and grant that permission herself in full knowledge of a Federal court decision that states - the weight of evidence suggests PRV causes HSMI, and HSMI may be a threat to wild salmon. The law in Canada is clear on the prohibition against transferring fish carrying a disease agent into our oceans. DFO tried to bend the rules with a couple of unlawful clauses in the licences they hand to the salmon farming industry (for free). That loophole has been closed. If they really need to use PRV-infected fish, the industry is free to appeal the decision.

      Erin En

      May 10, 2015 at 7:35am

      Kelly and Dave ... no one believes the fish farm industries lies anymore

      Kelly Obuck

      May 11, 2015 at 4:24pm

      Dear Ms. Morton. While the European study you point to is interesting...it's European and doesn't apply in Canada. There is no study that indicates that PRV is a threat to any fish, and is not linked with any disease.

      Contrary to your one European study, I see that American medical experts at the Pacific Northwest Fish Health Protection Committee have concluded that PRV (a fish virus) appears to be of low risk to wild Pacific salmonids (Meyers et al 2014). They also conclude that HSMI (a fish disease) has never been reported in North America.

      Perhaps the judge didn't see this study that was undoubtedly listed on your blog...

      Well done on the "win" however. You managed to impress a judge with emotion, rhetoric, and speculation. That really is an art, and something to be very proud of.

      I trust the medical experts who write regulations will stick to the science.

      Shawn Cardinall

      May 15, 2015 at 10:48am

      Of course, DFO will simply change the regulations and ignore the judge's comments about DFO's number one responsibility: protecting fish health. DFO's mission is to maximize profit, not protect the health of fish and the ocean.