VANCOUVER—The Canadian government spent nearly $2.3 million fighting a marine biologist and First Nation in court in an effort to avoid having to test for a contagious virus in dozens of fish farms along British Columbia’s coast, Star Vancouver has found.
Alex Morton has been a thorn in the federal government and fish farm industry’s side for years, taking them to court twice on this issue — and winning both times.
Morton, the ‘Namgis First Nation and environmental groups say fish farms are “viral factories” for a highly contagious pathogen, Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), that is putting wild salmon at risk.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, often called the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or DFO, allows farms to transfer salmon from land-based hatcheries to ocean pens without testing for the virus.
In February, a federal court judge sided with Morton and the ‘Namgis, striking down the government’s no-testing policy. The court gave DFO until June to come up with a new approach.
“If they spent $2.3 million dollars to fight me on this, and the ‘Namgis, that’s just wrong,” said Morton when she learned what it had cost Canadians.
Given B.C.’s declining salmon populations, Morton said it’s “inexcusable to allow an industry to pepper this coast with release points of this virus.”
‘Namgis Chief Don Svanvik said the revelation “just adds to the bewilderment” of the whole case.
“I would like DFO to at least use the same amount of vigour defending wild fish as they do the open net pen fish in fish farms. It seems to be a cockeyed priority,” he said.
“We’re salmon people, we’re people of the sea and we’re losing that because of how we treat the environment.”
B.C. has been ranked the world’s fourth-largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon. It’s the province’s biggest agri-food export.
According to DFO the aquaculture industry directly employed 1,595 people in 2017. The BC Salmon Farmers Association says the industry supports closer to 7,000 jobs.
A spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson did not address the legal fees in a response to Star Vancouver’s request for comment.
Instead, Jocelyn Lubczuk, Wilkinson’s press secretary, said: “protecting wild pacific salmon is a top priority.”
She pointed to various initiatives the department has undertaken “to ensure our aquaculture sector is economically successful and environmentally sustainable.”
These include moving to a new management approach that accounts for regional differences, a new framework for risk management, and an ongoing study looking at the feasibility of closed-containment fish farms, which would separate farmed fish from the open ocean.
On Tuesday, the department also announced that it will create a new external Advisory Committee on Aquaculture Science to ensure its policies are based on “the best and most up to date scientific information.”
As for DFO’s next steps on PRV, Lubczuk said the department would have more to say in the weeks ahead.
In her February decision, Justice Cecily Strickland wrote that the government’s existing PRV policy “fails to embody and is inconsistent with the precautionary principle, and it fails to take into consideration the health of wild Pacific salmon.”
“The background of this legal case kind of makes you scratch your head,” said Stan Proboszcz, the science advisor with Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
“The federal government is essentially being accused of not acting in a precautionary way and allowing potentially virus-positive fish to be put into Canadian public waters,” he said.
“Why is the federal government fighting this sort of thing?”
Declining wild salmon put the whole ecosystem at risk. In particular, the southern resident killer whales rely heavily on Chinook to survive.
Morton acknowledged Wilkinson is in a tough position. She met with him in person last week for nearly an hour and said it was the first time any federal minister has agreed to meet with her.
“No minister before him has given this industry the bad news that they are going to have to change their practice to protect wild salmon,” she said.
“It’s a role that Minister Wilkinson has inherited, but he is facing a very tough choice. He is going to either have to oversee the extinction of wild salmon or he is going to have to tell this industry it’s time to get out of the water.”
Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter covering courts, wildlife conservation and new technology. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii
Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank