Morton wins case against DFO on fish farms

Federal Court says DFO must require testing for virus before issuing licences

Independent researcher Alexandra Morton has attracted the support of celebrities like Pamela Anderson and David Suzuki in her campaign against B.C. fish farms. | BIV Archives

(This story has been updated with a correction. A federal court ruling required DFO to review it's testing policy, but not did not say that DFO necessarily had to test smolts for PRV, contrary to what was originally reported. Fisheries Minister Andrew Wilkinson issued a statement March 12 stating that, after reviewing the court decision, it was determined DFO is not legally required to test for PRV.)

The Federal Court has given the Department of Fisheries and Oceans four months to amend its policy of not testing fish farms for piscine reovirus (PRV), despite the science being unsettled on whether it actually causes any harm to salmon in B.C.

The court also found the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans breached its duty to consult with the Namgis First Nation over the question of transferring Atlantic salmon smolts from hatcheries to open net pens without testing for the virus.

The decision could have implications not only for fish farms, but wild hatcheries as well, since they both require licences from DFO before hatchery fish can be transferred into the marine environment.

The Federal Court on February 4 granted a judicial review application made by independent researcher and anti-fish farm activist Alexandra Morton and the Namgis First Nation.

In doing so, the court awarded her costs of $22,000, to be shared by DFO, Marine Harvest and Cermaq.

Morton’s application for a judicial review challenged DFO’s policy of not requiring salmon smolts to be tested for PRV before allowing them to be transferred to open net pens.

Morton believes that PRV, which is prevalent in farmed Atlantic salmon, can cause diseases in both farmed Atlantic and wild Pacific salmon – notably heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI).

One study by a team of scientists with the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative also suggested there may be a link between PRV and jaundice – a study that was criticized by the Canada’s Centre for Science Advice.

PRV has been strongly linked to HSMI in Norway. But last year, an independent study of the peer reviewed science concluded that the strain of PRV found in Pacific waters may be innocuous.

Not all viruses cause disease, and there is some question whether PRV poses any health threat to wild salmon, because the science is still somewha unsettled.

Justice Cecily Strickland acknowledged the “high degree of scientific uncertainty surrounding PRV and HSMI.”

But given DFO’s duty to protect wild fish, she found DFO should be adhering to the precautionary principal.

“The PRV Policy decision derogates from the precautionary principal, and fails to consider the health of wild Pacific salmon,” she wrote.

The court ruling gives DFO four months to review its policies on testing for PRV before issuing licences allowing for smolt transfers.

On March 12, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson released a statement, after his department reviewed the court ruling. After reviewing the court decision, Wilkinson said it does require DFO to review its testing policies, but that that does not necessarily mean DFO is legally obliged to test for PRV.

"The court said that upon revisiting this matter, 'it is possible that the Minister will still conclude that it is appropriate to maintain the PRV Policy,' or in other words, that it is not necessary to test for Piscine Orthoreovirus (PRV).

"The court did not order DFO to test for PRV prior to authorizing transfers of smolts to aquaculture facilities, or prior to releasing smolts in the wild."

If the mere presence of PRV in farmed Atlantic salmon smolts were sufficient to prevent licences from being issued, that could be devastating for the fish farm industry.

“The trouble for the farmers is that they are so infected they basically don’t have fish if they can’t use PRV-infected fish,” Morton wrote in response to the court’s decision.

“Marine Harvest told the court all but one of their hatcheries is infected. This has put Canadian law and the fish farm industry at loggerheads, and today the wild salmon won.”

But the presence of a virus does not mean it necessarily causes disease. Hepatitis A,B, C, D and E, for example, can cause serious health problems in humans, whereas Hepatitis G is believed to be pretty much benign.

Jim Powell, CEO of the BC Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences, said the science suggests that, while PRV may be widely prevalent, and even endemic to B.C., the strain in B.C. does not appear to cause disease in wild salmon. He thinks testing for it could be expensive and unnecessary.

“I’m all over that to support that anything we can do to support wild salmon health, we should,” he said. “If that includes PRV, then we do it. But right now the evidence is showing that it’s indolent. If the evidence is there that says, ‘Why worry about it?’ why would you test it?

“Way more research needs to be done before you jump to conclusions.”

A survey of the current science on PRV was recently concluded by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat that may shed more light on whether PRV is a threat to wild salmon. The findings of that study have not been published yet.