Morton versus the Department of Fisheries and Oceans

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The community of Echo Bay sits on the west side of Gilford Island, one of a group of islands comprising the Broughton Archipelago near the northern tip of Vancouver Island on B.C.’s Central Coast. In 1984, this remote settlement became the home of biologist Alexandra Morton, originally from the United States, who moved there to study a pod of orca whales living in the area. In the late ’80s, as aquaculture companies began opening up salmon-farming operations in the waters Morton had come to call home, her professional focus shifted from studying orcas to studying the effects these farms were having on the local ecosystem.

Morton had no choice but to shift focus; the orca whales left shortly after the salmon farms arrived. Morton says the whales fled the underwater acoustic devices used to keep seals from preying on farm fish, so she turned her attention to investigating the influences farms were having on wild salmon stocks. Her research has resulted in multiple papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, Science among them.

Although the scientific community has not always unanimously agreed with Morton, the byproducts of salmon farms that, in Morton’s opinion, pose threats to wild salmon are manifold — from epidemics of sea-lice that kill juvenile salmon, to escaped Atlantic salmon competing with wild populations. Now, however, Morton is convinced that farmed salmon are spreading harmful diseases to their wild cousins along the coast of B.C. Sufficiently convinced, at least, to take legal action in order to prevent an aquaculture company from putting what she says are lethal-disease-carrying fish into B.C. waters.

Morton, represented by Ecojustice environmental group lawyer Margot Venton, filed a lawsuit on May 7th in a Vancouver Federal Court against both the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Marine Harvest Canada, a subsidiary of Norwegian aquaculture giant Marine Harvest. The lawsuit contests Marine Harvest’s right, provided under a license issued by DFO, to transfer fish infected with a virus called piscine reovirus (PRV) from land-based hatcheries into open-pen fish farms.

PRV was only recently identified, in 2010, but some studies have fingered it as a potential cause of Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI), a disease that has been found to cause up to 20 per cent mortality among diseased fish in Norwegian salmon farms. Morton is concerned that, if it hasn’t already, the presence of PRV in farmed salmon in B.C. could lead to an HSMI outbreak in wild fish.

Morton did not respond to attempts to contact her in time for this publication. However, in a recent press conference held to discuss the lawsuit, she said, “[PRV] started in Norway and it spread rapidly; they’ve been unable to control it. It damages the muscles and the hearts of the fish, to the point where scientists don’t even think they can make it to rivers and if they do, that they might not even be able to swim up the rivers.”

Morton also said that after learning PRV was present in fish originating in Marine Harvest’s Dalrymple Hatchery in Sayward, B.C., “[She] asked [the DFO, the province of B.C. and Marine Harvest], ‘Please don’t put [PRV] in the water. It is too dangerous,’ but they went ahead and did that. It’s on the Fraser sockeye migration route, and it is a serious threat.”

The “Fraser sockeye” are a population of sockeye salmon that enter the Fraser River at its confluence with the Strait of Georgia, just south of Vancouver, before travelling upstream — in some cases as far as 800 km — before spawning. Over 10 million Fraser sockeye were expected to return to the river in 2009, and when only 1.4 million fish showed up, a federal inquiry was held to try and find out why. The inquiry was led by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen and was dubbed the Cohen Commission.

Morton, who participated in the commission, points to salmon farming as a major factor in the decline of Fraser sockeye stock, but Commissioner Cohen did not confirm this. He concluded that “Data presented during this Inquiry did not show that salmon farms were having a significant negative impact on Fraser River sockeye.” Other scientists involved in the Commission also disagree with Morton’s assessment.

Gary Marty is a veterinary pathologist (specialist in the diagnosis of animal disease) who has been the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture’s fish pathologist since 2004. In an email, Marty pointed out that, contrary to what Morton has said, “Just because PRV was first identified in Europe, that does not mean that PRV originated there.” In other words, PRV may have been present in B.C. salmon all along.

When PRV was first reported in 2010, Marty went through 625 samples archived from B.C. salmon farms in 2009 and 2010. The samples were taken from both healthy fish and fish that had died. He found that roughly 80 per cent of fish across both groups tested positive for PRV, indicating that PRV, although certainly present in farmed fish, didn’t appear to be related to mortality. Additionally, Marty points to a recent study published in the Journal of Fish Diseases led by scientists at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute. The study found no indications of HSMI in wild fish in Norway — despite finding PRV. Marty’s message is straightforward: PRV in farmed salmon does not appear to lead to HSMI in wild salmon. In fact, in Norway, where the disease HSMI was first identified, “authorities place no restrictions on moving PRV-positive fish from freshwater to saltwater if the fish have no associated disease,” wrote Marty. HSMI has never been found in any species of Pacific salmon.

Such arguments may have little bearing where Indigenous sovereignty is recognized however, unless  First Nations groups agree.

In its final report, published in the fall of 2012, the Cohen Commission made it clear that there was no “smoking gun,” no single cause of declining Fraser sockeye. Instead, the report emphasized that the decline was probably a result of a combination of multiple influences throughout the lifecycle of the fish, including aquaculture, but also warming rivers and streams due to climate change, and increased human activity along the Fraser River watershed.

The report called for increased federal funds for implementing a comprehensive approach to wild salmon conservation, carried out under the jurisdiction of the DFO.

The report also notes the “DFO has not yet completed research into the effects of diseases and pathogens from fish farms on Fraser River sockeye,” and that as a result, “significant scientific uncertainty remains around the effect of salmon farms on Fraser River sockeye salmon.” In terms that seem especially prescient in the context of Morton’s lawsuit, the report advocates precaution. “Mitigation measures should not be delayed in the absence of scientific certainty.”

Chief Bob Chamberlin, Vice President of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, also spoke at Morton’s press conference. Referring to the Commission’s findings, he said, “In my mind, there are some very clear recommendations to safeguard wild salmon, and it is now time to do something.”

After the Fraser sockeye numbers in 2009 capped a decline spanning almost a decade, the 2010 return came in as the highest since 1913, at 29 million fish.

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