Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on May 27, 2013 (updated: February 17, 2015)

Viruses on fish farms + wild salmon = bad news

Margot VentonLawyer

Pacific salmon are an iconic West Coast species that feeds and sustains individuals, communities and culture. But as Justice Bruce Cohen recently concluded, disease poses serious risk to the health of British Columbia’s wild salmon.

That’s why last week, Ecojustice — on behalf of biologist Alexandra Morton — launched a lawsuit seeking a Federal Court order declaring that the transfer of farmed Atlantic salmon carrying disease or disease agents into waters shared with wild fish is unlawful.

Both sides of the story
Morton alleges that in March 2013, Atlantic salmon infected with piscine reovirus (PRV) were transferred into an open-pen fish farm operated by Marine Harvest in Shelter Bay, B.C., located along the Fraser River sockeye migration route. Marine Harvest was operating under the terms of a federal aquaculture licence that purports to give them the power to make decisions about transferring fish carrying disease or disease agents into the ocean.

The lawsuit alleges that it was unlawful for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to have included those conditions respecting transfer of fish carrying disease or disease agents in an aquaculture licence.

The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans has so far declined to comment.

Marine Harvest has denied that they put diseased fish in the ocean. They also question whether PRV is dangerous.

What is PRV?
PRV attacks the muscles, specifically the heart, of salmon. It is considered to be the causative agent of Heart and Muscle Inflammation (HSMI), a disease that was first observed on Norwegian salmon farms in 1999 and spread quickly. It is now thought to have spread to virtually all fish farms in Norway, affecting close to 100 per cent of farmed fish sampled.

Heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) is a severe disease that affects the muscles and heart of salmon. HSMI can weaken salmon to the point they are unable to swim up a river and reproduce. PRV has been recently identified in farmed Atlantic salmon in B.C.

Scientists report that PRV is associated with and thought to cause HSMI. They also warn that PRV must be contained to prevent widespread infection of wild fish populations.

How does this connect to other Ecojustice work?
The emergence of PRV comes in the wake of the Cohen Commission’s final report, which concluded that “salmon farms along the sockeye migration route have the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to exacerbate endemic diseases that could have a negative impact on Fraser River sockeye.”

As we told you in our 2013 Victories Report, Ecojustice played an important role in the Cohen Commission by ensuring that environmental and conservation interests were well-represented.  The federal inquiry into 2009’s shocking decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon was no light matter. The inquiry reportedly cost $26 million and ran from November 2009, when Justice Bruce Cohen began his work, to October 2012, when he released his final report.

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