Will Courts Halt Diseased Farmed Salmon in Public Waters?

On May 7, I launched a lawsuit against the Minister of Fisheries and Marine Harvest in the Federal Court of Canada for the illegal transfer of diseased Atlantic salmon into net pens on the Fraser sockeye migration route. The Minister appears to have acted without authority, exceeding his jurisdiction, when he gave Marine Harvest’s vet the final decision on whether diseased Atlantic salmon could go into the public waters of British Columbia.

In March 2013, Marine Harvest transferred ~500,000 Atlantic salmon smolts known to be infected with piscine reovirus from their Dalrymple hatchery into a net pen on the Fraser sockeye migration route across from Port Hardy.

For ten years scientists in Norway could not figure out why farm salmon were increasing dying of a heart disease they called Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI).

Scientists reported that Atlantic farm salmon with HSMI lay on the bottom of the pens, on their sides, their hearts so “soft” and “flabby” the fish were unable to swim. They warned that “biosecurity” was important to try and stop it from spreading, but clearly they failed, because the disease has spread throughout the coast of Norway.

At a time when humans are being encouraged to eat fish to help combat a range of conditions including coronary disease, it seems somewhat ironic that heart disease seems to be such a problem in the fish themselves.” (Ferguson et al. 2005)

When 19 scientists, from Norway and the US, co-authored a paper in 2010 identifying the piscine reovirus as the most likely cause of this disease, HSMI had spread to over 400 farms in Norway. The 19 scientists issued very a clear warning that piscine reovirus must be contained to protect wild salmon.

it is urgent that measures be taken to control PRV … due to the potential for transmission to wild salmon populations” (Palacios et al. 2010) In a popularized version of this paper one of the authors states: “If the potential hosts are in close proximity, it goes through them like wildfire,” said Lipkin. (Science Wired)

Piscine reovirus in BC Atlantic farm salmon
As a participant in the Cohen Commission into the Decline of the Fraser Sockeye, I had access to the provincial feedlot salmon health records. Although piscine reovirus was never mentioned during this inquiry, I read the provincial vet, Dr. Gary Marty’s report of HSMI-like symptoms in Mainstream salmon in 2008.

This pattern of inflammation has also been described with Heart and Muscle Inflammation in Atlantic salmon reared in Europe, but this disease has not been identified in BC salmon.” (08/29/08, AHC Case:08-3362 Download HSMI case #08-3362 copy.pdf (1761.0K), page 2 3rd paragraph from bottom)

I decided to check whether Dr. Marty’s observations meant piscine reovirus had reached BC in the millions of Atlantic salmon eggs brought into BC by salmon farmers. I took samples of BC farm salmon sold in BC supermarkets, sent them to two labs and found piscine reovirus was not only in BC – it was common in farm salmon raised here!

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 11.35.54 AM

Atlantic salmon from Vancouver supermarket with PRV

After, I released my results on PRV, Dr. Gary Marty responded in the media that he had too found this virus in 75% of BC farm salmon. He told us it was not in wild salmon.

In 2008, Dr. Marty took samples of wild juvenile salmon caught between Knight and Kingcome Inlets and tested them for piscine reovirus in 2010. In this paper he reports all tests were negative negative. (Saksida et al. 2012)

I went back to the same area in 2011, sampled juvenile young wild salmon swimming past the Marine Harvest’s salmon feedlots in Tribune Channel and Fife Sound. Those fish tested positive for piscine reovirus. It was heart-breaking to find this Norwegian virus in the salmon of the area that I call home. These were the salmon populations that had launched my 20 year battle to protect wild salmon from salmon feedlots. If there was no piscine reovirus in 2008, but it was present in 2011, one has to ask, is it spreading like “wildfire” as scientists working with the virus had warned?

DFO is completely out of the loop and denies piscine reovirus is in BC. Shameful given the resources and expertise in that organization.

Government of Canada scientists have not confirmed the presence of this virus in Canadian fish, despite extensive monitoring and testing,” he said.

DFO is no longer believable, denial is their only response to Atlantic salmon viruses in BC waters and this lawsuit is to stop them from allowing private Norwegian companies from putting diseased salmon into ocean pens. The NDP Party in BC is in the middle of a campaign to be elected and keep saying they want to work with DFO towards a sustainable aquaculture industry – this does not bode well for any who need or want wild salmon to thrive.

Most disturbingly, a 2013 Norwegian paper suggests wild salmon infected with this virus may not have the energy to swim home to their rivers. What kind of insanity is this? Why would DFO take such risks with a resource as precious as wild salmon? (Garseth et al. 2013)

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 9.56.51 PM

Salmon have to be supreme athletes to survive, they cannot tolerate heart disease

Considering that the Pacific Salmon Commission reports that up to 90% of the Fraser sockeye that enter the lower Fraser River, don’t make it up river past the rapids, this fish farm virus should have been closely examined by the Cohen Commission. But government scientists kept their mouths shut. (Lapointe et al. 2003)

When the BC government farm salmon vet found an exotic virus known to spread rapidly, that weakens salmon to the point they may not be able to reach their rivers, in the majority of the Atlantic farm salmon on the migration route of BC’s biggest run on wild salmon which are mysteriously unable to swim upriver – this should have triggered an immediate critical evaluation of the situation by DFO.

There should have been extensive screening of all the salmon feedlots, farm and enhancement hatcheries and of the salmon dying in the rivers just before spawning. Fisheries and Ocean Canada should have tested Pacific wild salmon to find out how this virus impacts them. Dr. Kristi Miller should have been tasked to inform this critical situation by reading the immune systems of infected fish using the powerful technique called “genomic profiling.” She could tell us if this virus is destroying the hearts of wild salmon.

But instead the detection of this Norwegian virus was kept completely silent, not even the Cohen Commission was informed. When I released my results DFO denied it exists and the Provincial vet argued it is not a problem. The Pacific Foundation, Sport Fishing Institute, the Steelhead Society, the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC – all remained mute. Apparently it is OK with everyone to just let this happen despite all the warnings. I cannot believe NO ONE responded! If you are a member of one of these organizations, perhaps you could support them in stepping up to acknowledge and deal with this situation. The only reason this has been allowed to happen is because everyone is complicit with their silence. This recent article in the New York Times seeks to ridicule my efforts and so the damage continues. Not many want risk public humiliation and so Marine Harvest and the others just keep getting away with what they can to serve their shareholders as they are mandated to do. They can say and do as they like.
Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 8.44.57 AM copy

Grieg Seafood Pretends that Eating Their farmed Salmon Saves Wild Salmon

I don’t have any reason to believe this is an isolated event, I think infected farm salmon are common. The difference was this time I was tipped off that ~500,000 Atlantic salmon smolts had tested positive for the virus, before entering the ocean. I tried to stop these fish from entering the ocean, but was ignored. DFO did not even answer my letters.

Marine Harvest is very familiar with the potential for this disease to kill salmon as they list it as the second largest “cause of mortality” of their farm salmon in the world.

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 10.53.59 AM copy

Screen shot from Marine Harvest ANNUAL REPORT 2012

British Columbia is the second biggest region of losses for Marine Harvest.

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 10.54.08 AM copy

Screen shot from Marine Harvest ANNUAL REPORT 2012 (note MH’s only Canadian feedlots were in BC in 2012)

Is Marine Harvest losing salmon in BC to heart failure? Anyone out there know, and brave enough to talk about this?

Everyone is afraid to stand up to these Norwegian companies using BC waters to raise “their” fish and this is why I am taking the Minister of Fisheries and Marine Harvest to court with Ecojustice. I don’t think it is OK, I don’t want all of us have to eat wild fish infected with farm salmon viruses and to risk losing wild salmon.

The Law

This is a Judicial Review of the federal aquaculture license granted to fish farmers to transfer infected Atlantic salmon from their freshwater hatcheries into their marine net pen sites. We are challenging the notion that the Minister of Fisheries has the authority to disregard the law under the Fisheries Act, put diseased farm salmon in ocean feedlots and allow that disease to infect wild salmon.

Specifically Section 56 of the Fishery (General) Regulations states that the Minister may not issue a licence to transfer fish that have: “any disease or disease agent that may be harmful to the protection and conservation of fish

Similarly, the federal Finfish Aquaculture Licence issued to each farm salmon states:

The licence holder has obtained written and signed confirmation, executed by the source facility’s veterinarian or fish health staff, that, in their professional judgement:

(i) mortalities, excluding eggs, in any stock reared at the source facility have not exceeded 1% per day due to any infectious diseases, for any four consecutive day period during the rearing period;
(ii) the stock to be moved from the source facility shows no signs of clinical disease requiring treatment; and
(iii) no stock at the source facility is known to have had any diseases listed in Appendix IV; or
(iv) where conditions 3.1 (b)(i) and/or 3(b)(iii) cannot be met transfer may still occur if the facility veterinarian has conducted a risk assessment of facility fish health records, review of diagnostic reports, evaluation of stock compartmentalization, and related biosecurity measures and deemed the transfer to be low risk.

Schedule IV diseases include: “Any other filterable agent either causing cytopathic effects in tissue culture or is associated with identifiable clinical disease in fish.

Definition of filterable agent: a former name for bacteriophage, virus, or other submicroscopic noncellular microorganism. (Oxford Dictionary of Biochemistry)

So this newly minted aquaculture licence states that a fish farm company is not allowed to put diseased fish into ocean net pens unless the company vet says it is “low risk”. It does not even bother to say low risk to whom? Wild salmon? The people who depend on wild salmon? The whales, bears, eagles, sea lions, forests and everything that lives in those forests?

HSMI is an identifiable disease and piscine reovirus is filterable agent associated with it. The scientific community tracking it as it spread through Norway has warned us that it spreads like “wildfire” (see last sentence of this article).


This legal proceeding is going to be slow, because this is Federal Court. If I win, I might be able to move forward with getting an injunction to remove these diseased fish from the biggest wild salmon migration route in BC the water at some point in the future – months from now. In the meantime, the young wild salmon pouring out of the rivers of eastern Vancouver Island, the Fraser River and Knight and Kingcome Inlets right now are being exposed to these diseased feedlot salmon, to a virus that spreads like wildfire. Then the adult salmon that return to BC this fall will be exposed to this feedlot, and many others, and so will potentially carry the virus into the nursery lakes and rivers throughout BC as they attempt to swim upriver to spawn. Juvenile salmon rearing in those lakes will be exposed to Norwegian feedlot piscine reovirus and the virus will have the opportunity to spread like wildfire in these lakes. The infected salmon feedlots are far away from these lakes and so the people who depend on these salmon have no idea of the disease transaction that took place. While British Columbians risk all, European shareholders might profit from this situation, if these diseased Atlantic salmon live long enough to be harvested in 18-24 months. The public who fish wild salmon exposed to this feedlot get to eat the virus, in the wild salmon.

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 10.04.40 PM

While this case is federal, the provincial government holds the Licence of Occupation for this salmon feedlot – a lease agreement that rents them the seafloor below the pens so Marine Harvest can drop anchors to hold this diseased facility on the Fraser sockeye migration route. The Province of BC could terminate these agreement in 60 days with no compensation to the company, if it was in the public interest.

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 8.20.50 AM

If you are interested, let your provincial candidates know right now! Then let the new Provincial government know.

Thank you to Jeff Jones, who helped me understand the law pertaining to the transfer of these diseased Atlantic salmon

Thank you to Greg McDade for his wise counsel.

Thank you to Erling Olsen for making the first contribution to my legal bills.

Thank you to Ecojustice for working so hard to launch this.

Thank you for standing with the wild salmon, I hope we can make a difference to the wild salmon of British Columbia.

If you want to help pay the legal bill to stand up to Marine Harvest and the Minister of Fisheries you can do so here.

Alexandra Morton was living in a remote archipelago studying whales when the fish farmers came to her town. Read other articles by Alexandra, or visit Alexandra's website.