DFO v Wild Salmon – Will a Second Court Win Make Any Difference?

Alexandra Morton

Indigenous women make final plea to Marine Harvest not to put any more farm salmon into Namgis territory. Photo by Alexandra Morton

On February 4, 2019, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that the Minister of Fisheries’ policy not to screen farm salmon for piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) is unlawful, a violation of the precautionary principle, and ignores both the critical state of wild salmon in BC today and the high degree of scientific uncertainty around what this virus is doing to wild salmon. In a word, I won! Thank you Ecojustice.

We won this already in 2016, but federal Fisheries Ministers Shea, Tootoo, LeBlanc, and now Wilkinson all refused to obey the Federal Court and continued to refuse to screen farm salmon for PRV.

It is against the law to transfer fish carrying a “disease agent” into BC marine waters. DFO research (Di Cicco et al, 2018) has shown that PRV causes the red blood cells of Chinook salmon to rupture en masse – which means it’s a “disease agent.” This means that if the Minister screened for PRV, by law he could not issue a permit to move infected fish out of the freshwater hatcheries into marine net pen farms. So long as he doesn’t screen, he doesn’t know.

However, we know some hatcheries are infected. Marine Harvest provided documents to the court saying all but one of their hatcheries is PRV-positive and that the company would be “severely impacted” if this law was applied to their fish.

Three days after the ruling, DFO issued a press release. A panel of experts had reached consensus: Piscine Orthoreovirus in Atlantic salmon farms poses minimal risk to wild Fraser River sockeye. However, DFO provided no scientific confirmation, and in fact the review is not complete and the experts were not given the opportunity to approve the statement.

One of these experts spoke up. John Werring, senior biologist for the David Suzuki Foundation, reacted saying that the expert panel did not approve the DFO press release and that, given the extremely high scientific uncertainty of harm to sockeye, it is impossible to conclude that PRV is a minimal risk to Fraser sockeye.

Several First Nations requested that I be on the expert panel, as I am publishing on PRV in their territories. DFO refused to accept me or Emiliano Di Cicco, who reported PRV is causing Chinook salmon blood cells to explode.


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I don’t understand how Minister Wilkinson doesn’t realize that the science has gotten away from him. While he controls many labs and is apparently seconding Dr. Gary Marty from the BC Ministry of Agriculture to oversee farm fish health for DFO, they don’t have control over my science. I currently have four research initiatives underway that will help clarify the risk of PRV to wild salmon, and the group I work with is the only non-government team working on PRV in BC. Clearly, there has to be non-government work breaking the ice to allow research from inside DFO to make it out into the daylight. If I hadn’t published the first paper on PRV in BC, would any information on PRV be public today?

Washington State recently ordered the destruction of a total of 1.8 million PRV-infected farm fish that a Canadian company was trying to put into pens in Puget Sound. But Canada is moving in the opposite direction dealing with three Norwegian companies.

Meanwhile, Indigenous governments of the Broughton Archipelago won the authority to screen farm salmon entering their territory for PRV and will be removing the industry entirely within five years. It took a year of tough negotiations and the 280-day occupation of the farm facilities, but now these nations are assuming DFO’s role.

The solution remains. Invite land-based investment if BC is committed to growing farm salmon and use the rapidly developing genomic science to allow wild salmon to inform us where we need to strategically get out of their way. Will I, or someone else, have to go to court a third time on this subject? Will there be any uninfected wild salmon left at the end of that proceeding?


Alexandra Morton is an independent marine biologist and founder of the Raincoast Research Society. This article is condensed from a post originally published on her blog.

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