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A highly contagious blood virus may be cause for concern off the coast of British Columbia, according to a new study. The paper —  published by a team of scientists at the Pacific Salmon Foundation and Fisheries and Oceans Canada — states that the Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) virus causing disease in some farmed Atlantic salmon, may also cause a related disease in Chinook salmon in British Columbia. The virus is linked to inflammation in fish skeletal and heart muscles, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood into the bloodstream and impeding the salmon’s ability to swim.

“The results of this study are significant because they show– for the first time – strong evidence that the same strain of PRV that causes heart and skeletal muscle inflammation disease (HSMI) in Atlantic salmon is likely to cause disease in at least one species of Pacific salmon,” said Dr. Brian Riddell, president and CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation. “These findings add to the existing concerns about the potential impacts of open net salmon farming on wild Pacific salmon off the coast of BC”.

he Broughton Archipelago is home to multiple salmon farms that are known to contain piscine reovirus
The Broughton Archipelago is home to multiple salmon farms that are known to contain piscine reovirus (Mackenzie Bartlett/Wikimedia Commons)

In November of 2017, Tavish Campbell, an underwater videographer, released footage of a blood-red emission from a fish farm processing facility being discharged into a wild sockeye salmon spawning migration route. The video spurred testing by government scientists, and it was found that PRV was present in the effuse.  Prior to the video, it was believed that the virus was contained to farm populations and was argued as harmless to the salmon by farm fisheries.

“There are millions of viruses in the ocean, most of which are harmless,”said Jeremy Dunn of the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) in a February interview with Global News. “The science to date on this particular virus would show that it’s not having a harm on farmed fish or wild fish.”

While only recently reported in the Americas, the virus has plagued Norway’s farm fishing industry since 1999. Marine Harvest, a Norwegian Company that raises one-fifth of the world’s farmed salmon, cited Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflamation (HSMI) as the second largest cause of salmon deaths in its farms. A 2015 ruling by a federal court in Ottowa decided that while a”causal relationship between PRV and HSMI has not been conclusively established,” the expert testimony presented “supports the view that PRV is the viral precursor to HSMI.”

With the possibility of juvenile salmon contracting the virus on their way back to the ocean, conservationists have become concerned with the future of the species. Following the lowest salmon run since records began in 1893, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada published a report in December 2017 stating that the stocks of some species of sockeye salmon in British Columbia are nearing extinction, and that the Canadian government should designate them as endangered.

Conservationists are not the only group to protest the British Columbian salmon farming industry practices. Indigenous groups in British Columbia have been protesting the development and operation of the open-net farms for years. Members of the ’Namgis and Musgamagw First Nations have occupied Marine Harvest property near the Swanson Island farm, and sued the Minister of Fisheries to prevent the opening of a new open-net fishery in their territory. The occupation lasted 290 days before British Columbia’s Supreme Court ordered the protesters to cease their activities.

On June 20th, 2018, the provincial government released two new conditions that fish-farm developers will have to meet to get tenure in British Columbia. One requires fishery operators to have the consent of the local indigenous community of the territory, and the other necessitates that that operators demonstrate to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) that the industry will not disrupt the wild salmon population. The new statutes will be fully incorporated in 2022.

Oddly, the Broughton Archipelago where the protests took place as well as where 20 major fisheries are located, is excluded from the rules. The farming tenures on the Archipelago were due to be up on June 20th, but an announcement whether they will be renewed has yet to be made. If the lease is not renewed, the fisheries will have 60 days to remove its infrastructure.

“The Province and Broughton-area First Nations are continuing discussions, which began Jan. 30, 2018, to resolve concerns regarding specific farms in the Broughton Archipelago,” stated a government media advisory.

The provincial government is expected to make an announcement on the leases soon.


Sources and Further Reading:

Heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) disease diagnosed on a British Columbia salmon farm through a longitudinal farm study – Plos One

B.C. conservationists post livestream of blood discharge pouring into local waters – Global News

A threat to wild salmon? Government confirms virus in blood discharge pouring into B.C. waters – Global News

Sockeye salmon recommended for listing under Species At Risk Act – The Globe and Mail

Farmed Fish Threaten British Columbia’s Wild Salmon Population – The Revelator

B.C. First Nation in federal court in bid to halt fish farm restocking – CTV News

New Fish Farm Rules Set By BC Government – The Tyee