An Atlantic salmon is seen during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS /Jonathan Hayward

An Atlantic salmon is seen during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS /Jonathan Hayward

North Island First Nations disappointed with DFO’s handling of 10-year-old fish virus study

2012 fish virus study suggested farmed salmon suffered from anemia and jaundice because of PRV

The aquaculture industry in British Columbia continues to cause controversy, with allegations surfacing that a 10-year-old fish virus study had been “suppressed” by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders is the key author behind the 2012 fish virus study that suggested farmed salmon suffered from anemia and jaundice because of Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), and for 10 years DFO wouldn’t release the findings from the study.

Why is that, exactly? Well, opinions differ on that part.

It was back in March that DFO was finally ordered by the federal Information Commissioner to release the study after an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request was filed, with the commissioner ultimately deciding that suppressing publication of the document was not justified.

Upon hearing the study was finally released, three Broughton Archipelago First Nations (Mamalilikulla, ‘Namgis, and the Kwikwasutinuxw Haxwa’mis) combined to issue a statement sharing their disappointment that it took so long for the findings to be released.

According to the nations, DFO “decided to supress information they had about fish viruses associated with BC finfish aquaculture, and that they did this for 10 years.”

The nations cited reporting by Ian Bailey in a Globe and Mail article that was published on April 14, 2022, and by Leyland Cecco in an article for The Guardian that was published on April 14, 2022, as their sources.

‘Namgis Chief Don Svanvik also stated in the release the three nations “have worked very hard to understand the ways that the fish farms in our territories can affect the wild Pacific salmon populations and the health of the ecosystem, including big investments in science and monitoring programs. For 10 years, DFO has had reliable information about the harm that these viruses may cause wild salmon, which we could have used to protect these dwindling stocks. The government of Canada says it wants to act like our partner but holding back this important information is not something a partner would do.”

As such, the three nations say they’ve come together to develop the Broughton Aquaculture Transition Initiative (BATI) with the goal of recovery of Pacific salmon populations.

“Agreements with the Province of British Columbia and the two finfish aquaculture companies operating in the Broughton Area are focused on the orderly transition of finfish aquaculture operations in the area, and potentially their removal altogether.”

The nations will decide this year if the tenures for seven salmon farms will be renewed in their territories, and they also noted that the BATI program, which has been operating since 2019, features “an Indigenous Monitoring and Inspection Program that includes members of all three of the Nations and monitors and oversees fish farm operations in the Broughton as well as the general health of the coastal marine environment, and throughout eight priority watersheds in their territories.”

According to the release, the program also features leading (contracted) scientific experts and academic collaborators who help the BATI program understand the health of farmed and wild salmon and the ecosystem, and ways to design restoration and recovery of wild salmon and important habitats.

“The newly released information about the adverse effects of the highly contagious PRV to fish health corroborates observations and other information gathered during the BATI program,” says the nations. “However, the BATI First Nations Leadership Table feels that this information would have been extremely helpful in 2012, and potentially helped prevent the losses of wild salmon that we are dealing with today.”

When asked to comment, the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) issued a statement saying the 2012 fish virus study was not conducted by the BCSFA and “we had no control over whether or when the manuscript was published.”

The BCSFA further stated they understand that the study was not published because “the main co-authors did not agree on a conclusion based on the data. The manuscript has not yet gone through the peer review process because of this disagreement. Our sector supports the dissemination of sound science and information being released in the context of a peer reviewed published paper, rather than an ad hoc release of information through ATIP.”

As for the dangers of PRV, the BCSFA said that in the decade since the study in question commenced, “there has been substantial science and reporting on PRV. That reporting started with Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders testifying about this very study at the Cohen Commission in 2011.”

According to the BCSFA, recent peer-reviewed research supports that farmed PRV is not considered to have any clinical significance by fish health scientists, “and therefore is not a risk to wild Pacific salmon.”

“From Alaska to California, despite the myriad of viruses, bacteria and parasites that wild hatchery biologists and veterinarians have to deal with, no one is concerned or really looks for PRV. PRV is not an issue among fish health professionals and never has been.”

The North Island Gazette reached out to DFO for comment on the 2012 fish virus study, with Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray’s press secretary Claire Teichman stating that “as has been previously reported, according to widely accepted standards for publishing scientific research papers, authors must agree to the contents of the paper. This is also reflected in DFO’s policy on science integrity.”

She added Murray is still committed to transitioning away from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters and the federal government’s work to do so is underway.

RELATED: After the election: The future of fish farms in the North Island

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