SALMON SICKNESS
The Walrus|September/October 2021
For years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has minimized the risk of a virus some of its own scientists believe is threatening wild salmon
MAX BINKS-COLLIER

BRIAN WADHAMS, a fisher from ‘Namgis First Nation, sometimes sits alone on his docked boat, a thirty-five-foot gillnetter christened Silver Fin II. As a boy, he accompanied his father and grandfather on fishing trips, and he started working as a deckhand at the age of eleven. “I’ll probably die with my boots on,” says Wadhams, now sixty-nine. He recalls spending days and nights at sea and catching salmon to share with fellow ‘Namgis in Alert Bay, a village on an island east of Vancouver Island. He bought Silver Fin II to teach his two sons how to make a living off the ocean, but they told him they could not afford it. There simply aren’t enough fish left.

Wild salmon in British Columbia are in trouble. According to one estimate, some populations have dropped by as much as 93 percent since the early 1990s. Lately, the situation has grown dire.

In 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessed sixteen chinook populations in southern BC and warned that half were at risk of disappearing. Last year, the number of sockeye returning to spawn in the Fraser River crashed to a record low. It’s hard to say exactly why this is happening, though logging, climate change, and overfishing all seem to play a role. Among the most controversial potential factors, however, is the virus Piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV. The virus isn’t necessarily fatal, but infected fish may be weakened and unable to swim as fast, making them more likely to be eaten by predators or fail to migrate upriver in order to spawn — both of which can have serious consequences on salmon survival. While PRV isn’t solely to blame for the decline, mounting evidence — consistent with research by an international cast of scientists — suggests the virus may be partly responsible for driving already struggling fish stocks to extinction.

Not everyone agrees. Among the dissenters is Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO ), the federal department tasked with protecting those salmon and marine habitats more broadly. The DFO is worried about the calamitous state of the fish stocks — in June, it announced the closure of 60 percent of commercial fisheries to allow populations to rebound. But it has denied the virus’s link to any disease that could menace the wild salmon. Citing its own scientific assessments, the DFO basically dismisses PRV-1A — the variant of the virus found in BC — as an innocuous microbe that has been floating throughout coastal waters for a long time. A lot hinges on which side is right: PRV ends up affecting nearly 80 percent of the Atlantic salmon that aquaculture companies transfer from onshore hatcheries into fish farms floating in the ocean. Fish farms are little more than big nets where hundreds of thousands of salmon grow until they are harvested and sold. Because so many fish are penned together, the virus can fester and spread to the Pacific wild salmon swimming past.

If the DFO recognized PRV-1A as a “disease agent” — that is, as causing or contributing to disease — the department would be legally prohibited from authorizing transfers of infected fish, a move that might well shipwreck the province’s lucrative salmon-farming industry. The seventy-four active farms, scattered mainly around Vancouver Island, support several thousand well-paying jobs and provide Canada, the world’s fourth-largest producer of salmon, with 60 percent of its farmed salmon. Several mayors on northern Vancouver Island have described the industry as “deeply integrated into the fabric of local lives.”

The declining numbers of West Coast salmon have profoundly affected those who rely on them. Wadhams recalls how commercial fishing once “kept our communities alive.” Prior to the mid-1970s, a salmon fisher could expect to make up to $30,000 from June to September. Now, they earn about a tenth of that or less. By Wadhams’s count, ‘Namgis First Nation once boasted a fleet of several hundred boats. Maybe ten are left today. Each year, it’s not unusual to find another decommissioned vessel abandoned by owners who can no longer afford upkeep. “Our beach has become a cemetery for our boats,” says Wadhams. Many younger ‘Namgis have left Alert Bay to pursue opportunities elsewhere; about half of the First Nation’s population already lives off of Cormorant Island. “It’s just so heartbreaking to see a community dying,” Wadhams says.

It is not just people who depend on the salmon. The fish are foundational to BC’s ecosystem. They feed a wide range of animals, including orcas, sea lions, wolves, bears, and eagles. Nutrients from salmon carcasses, hauled into the forests by bears, are even absorbed into the towering forests along the coast.

‘Namgis First Nation is now in the Federal Court of Canada, facing off against the DFO over the department’s refusal to require testing for PRV-1A before salmon are transferred to fish farms. The ‘Namgis’ view that the virus causes disease is shared by a broad range of conservationists, academic ecologists and biologists, and veterinarians around the world. Indeed, the DFO remains a global outlier, insisting that what it calls the “BC strain” of PRV is different, posing little danger to salmon stocks. Over 100 First Nations have called for the removal of fish farms over concerns that they spread pathogens. Recent research has shown just how high the stakes are. In May, the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, a government-funded research operation devoted to conserving salmon, published an article showing that fish farms in BC are superspreaders of PRV-1A — the virus’s spread displays the properties of an epidemic. Viral ecologist Gideon Mordecai, lead author on the paper, emailed the DFO, urging the department to “not continue to perpetuate a false narrative” that the virus “poses ‘minimal threat to wild salmon.’”

That “false narrative” runs deeper than many Canadians realize. As part of their litigation, the ‘Namgis have collected a trove of internal DFO records, including drafts of scientific assessments about PRV-1A and emails between government scientists. These documents and others, obtained via access to information requests, were shared with me by the First Nation’s lawyer and by marine biologist Alexandra Morton, who has been chronicling the DFO ’s alleged mismanagement of the West Coast fishery for thirty years. They show that the department’s view of the virus is based on scientific conclusions that omit, downplay, or mischaracterize the relevant research. In one report, the DFO stated that a BC fish farm was free of a certain disease caused by PRV — despite the fact that an international team of researchers, including a DFO scientist, had diagnosed it.

“A lot of fairly definitive statements are made based on rather flimsy evidence” is how one scientist from the David Suzuki Foundation, emailing a DFO colleague, described the department’s conclusion that PRV-1A is harmless. Scientists, including those within the department, have consistently raised concerns about the way the DFO ’s interpretation of the science often seems to benefit BC fish farms. “There is no way that given ALL of the evidence, including field studies, that one could plausibly state that PRV in BC is no[t] a disease agent,” wrote one senior DFO scientist, lambasting her own ministry.

In an email to me, the DFO said that it “conduct[s] rigorous research and risk assessments” to ensure fish farms “continue to pose minimal risk to their surrounding environment.” But the documents suggest otherwise. They cast serious doubt on the agency’s scientific integrity, its independence from industry, and its willingness to protect BC’s wild salmon.

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