Ecojustice Case – Nature Case Status: Victory

Protecting wild salmon from piscine reovirus

Margot VentonLawyer
Kegan Pepper-SmithLawyer
alex-and-tatoo photo by Ivan AlexisAlexandra MortonClient
Olivia FrenchEcojustice Alumni
Sockeye spawning
Photo via Shutterstock

The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans has a legal responsibility to protect wild salmon.

Ecojustice, on behalf of independent biologist Alexandra Morton, has scored another victory in the fight to protect wild salmon from a virus that is highly prevalent in farmed Atlantic salmon: piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV.

Ecojustice lawyers represented Alex in Federal Court in the fall of 2018. We argued that the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans’ policy and practice of allowing companies to transfer farmed salmon into open net pens in the ocean without first testing them for PRV was illegal.

Specifically, Ecojustice said, the minister’s practice contravened Section 56 of the Fishery (General) Regulations, which states that the minister cannot issue a transfer licence for fish that “have any disease or disease agent that may be harmful to the protection and conservation of fish.”

The Federal Court agreed.

In a 200-page decision issued in February 2019, the court ruled that the minister’s PRV policy is illegal for several reasons. Critically, it found that the PRV policy does not comply with the precautionary principle. This important principle says that, whenever possible, harm to human health and nature must be prevented before it happens — particularly in situations in which scientific understanding of potential risks is incomplete.

In its decision, the court gave the minister four months to come up with a new, precautionary, and science-based policy.

PRV is highly contagious and research shows that it is present in up to 80 per cent of farmed salmon.

There is also mounting evidence that PRV could harm wild Pacific salmon. A peer-reviewed study co-authored by Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists and published in May, 2018, showed that PRV can enter blood cells in Chinook salmon and ultimately cause them to burst, a condition that can result in liver and kidney damage, anemia, and even death.

Why did Ecojustice get involved?

Taking the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to court over salmon protection is nothing new for us, or for Alex, an independent biologist who has studied salmon for more than 30 years. We first teamed up with Alex in 2013, when we successfully argued that the minister could not delegate his regulatory responsibilities to the same fish farm companies he is supposed to oversee.

Wild salmon are a keystone species. They feed endangered orcas, eagles and bears, and nutrients from salmon have even been detected in the trees surrounding salmon-bearing streams and rivers.

Wild salmon are also central to the cultures, diets, and economies of many coastal peoples. In fact, wild salmon are so important to some First Nations that members call themselves “salmon people.”

Despite their importance, however, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada reported in 2018 that nearly half of the wild Chinook salmon populations it surveyed were at risk of extinction.

What does this victory mean?

The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans’ primary responsibility is to protect marine species, including wild salmon.

The court’s decision in this case made it clear that, in order to do this, the minister must use a precautionary and science-based approach to protecting wild salmon — especially when there is a risk of transmitting a potentially deadly virus or disease.

This is an important victory for the health of wild salmon and for the species and communities that rely on these fish. The decision also sets an important precedent by reinforcing the precautionary principle.

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