Regulations for fish processors out of date: audit

Audit of fish processing plants finds high degree of non-compliance

When fish like these farmed Atlantic salmon are processed, the waste if often discharged into the ocean with minimal treatment.

Fish processors in B.C. have been found to be non-compliant with provincial and federal regulations, and the provincial government is vowing to tighten up the rules around permitting.

An audit of fish processing plants by the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate change found that many processors have exceeded the amount of effluent they are allowed to discharge into the marine environment and are failing to properly monitor discharge rates. It also finds the regulations around permitting outdated.

“Most of the current permits do not contain the foundational requirements that are necessary to be protective of the environment,” the audit concludes.

"The industry has been largely operating under an outdated permitting regime, going back several decades,” B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said in a press release. “We are taking immediate steps to ensure permits are updated and strengthened at fish processing facilities throughout B.C."

The BC Salmon Farmers Association agrees with the report’s findings.

“The current wastewater treatment permitting structure is outdated, and we’re happy the government is setting a course to address that,” said association spokesman Shawn Hall.

“Association members have been working with the government to get this permitting structure updated for more than a decade and several of our members who have processing plants have invested significantly to update their water treatment technologies in recent years, despite the outdated rules.”

The audit was prompted by an underwater video shot by photographer Travis Campbell. The video showed blood pouring from an outfall pipe at the Brown’s Bay processing plant on Vancouver Island, which processes farmed salmon.

The concern around effluent from the processing of farm salmon is that it might contain pathogens harmful to wild fish.

In response to concerns that fish farm processors were pumping untreated fish waste into the ocean, provincial inspectors audited 30 permitted fish processing plants, although only a handful were operating at the time of the inspections.

Some of the plants that were audited process farmed salmon only, some process wild salmon only, and some process both. Auditors found a range of non-compliance for things like exceeding permitted volumes of effluent. They also found excessive levels of some pollutants.

Despite the fact the audit was prompted by concerns raised over effluent from the processing of farm salmon, the report makes no distinction between wild and farm salmon processors.

There is therefore no way of knowing whether farmed fish processors are less or more compliant than wild fish processors. The report says nothing about the Brown’s Bay processing plant, despite the fact it was the one that prompted the audit in the first place.

Neither Heyman nor the report’s authors were made available to explain why the audit – when it was promoted by concerns over farmed fish processors – provides no insights on whether farmed fish processors are more or less compliant than processors of wild fish.

Nor did the auditors test for the one pathogen anti fish farm activists have flagged as being the most potentially lethal to wild stocks: piscine reovirus (PRV), which has been linked to heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI).

The only way to test for PRV in effluent is to look for its genetic material. But the virus’ DNA can be detected even when it’s dead.

 “This test method does not indicate whether the virus is viable and/ or if it has the ability to transfer to wild stocks,” the audit report states. “In addition, a lack of adequate wet lab capacity in BC to monitor and report on viruses limits the ability to confirm PRV viability in effluent.

“Without the ability to test for the live virus, it is unknown what the efficacy of wastewater disinfection is for PRV.”

And despite assertions that recent studies have drawn a conclusive link between PRV and HSMI, the report concludes: “To date, researchers have been unable to demonstrate a causative relationship between PRV and HSMI in BC.”

In response to the audit, the BC Green Party issued a press release that states “the release of infected blood from farmed fish is another reason why the government should keep its promise to transition away from open-net pen finfish aquaculture.”

But if auditors found “infected blood,” they fail to mention it in their report.

They did identify high levels of certain pollutants like BOD (biological oxygen demand), which is a measure of organic compounds in water, TSS (total suspended solids), and certain chemicals, like chlorine and ammonia (from fish blood and slime).

The main concern identified by the auditors were not viruses but pollutants – BOD, chemicals (chlorine, ammonia), TSS, and fecal coliforms – all of which could be found coming from fish processing effluent, regardless of whether they were processing farmed or wild salmon.

Auditors physically made 14 on-site inspections of eight processing plants that were in operation between December and March and took physical samples of effluent.

The rest of the inspections were basically paper reviews: “office review inspections that included a review of reports and phone discussions with the facility owners or operators.”

In a press, Green Party MLA Adam Olsen states that wild salmon are being exposed to “acutely lethal levels of effluent.”

The audit does state that the effluent that was tested was “acutely lethal to fish in the lab environment, meaning that the toxicity tests resulted in 50% or more fish mortality.”

But it also notes that in the marine environment, those pollutants would be diluted.

“The inspection samples showed there is some potential for environmental impacts from fish processing discharges, based on effluent toxicity and concentrations of some parameters. However, there is no evidence from the existing receiving environment data that indicates that impacts are occurring.

“Additional receiving environment monitoring would be required to fully assess whether fish processing facilities are potentially causing pollution as defined in EMA.”

While some of the fish processing plants are authorized to have advanced treatment regimes in place, it’s not clear from the report whether any of them are doing anything more than screening effluent before it is released into the marine environment or municipal sewers.