Two companies, three salmon farms and a whole lot of uncertainty — that’s the situation in British Columbia’s salmon farming industry these days. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has placed three farms under quarantine because of tests that showed evidence of the IHN (haematopoietic necrosis) virus.
While IHN is not harmful to humans, it can be particularly lethal for Atlantic salmon. Finfish such as sockeye, chinook, coho, and rainbow trout can also contract it, though wild populations have, to date, been more resistant.
According to CFIA, the virus is found in the Pacific Ocean watershed of B.C. On occasion, it has also popped up among farmed fish. It can be spread by contaminated equipment and contaminated water, as well as by infected fish, both alive and dead. A vaccine to prevent the virus is available, but the BC Salmon Farmers Association say Mainstream was not using it.
As of this writing, 30 B.C. fish farms have been cleared after being tested for the virus. “Weak positive” results have been found on two Mainstream Canada farms north of Tofino as well as on a Grieg Seafood coho farm near Sechelt. All three farms are under quarantine.
The virus has also cropped up in Washington among Atlantic salmon at a Bainbridge fish farm, leading to destruction of more than a million pounds of Atlantic salmon. In an interview with the Kitsap Sun, John Kerwin, Department of Fish and Wildlife fish health supervisor, said, “Any first time it occurs, you don’t fully understand the impact to wild fish. We know it can impact (farm) fish. If we move fast, we can try to minimize the amplification.”
What worries biologist and watchdog Alexandra Morton is not just that IHN has been identified in the salmon, but how the outbreak is being handled. She is also concerned that if the BC Liberals pass an amended Animal Health Act, scheduled for a vote May 31st, news concerning virus outbreaks would be withheld from the public. She writes on her blog:
I will be breaking the law if I inform you about a reportable disease like IHN and ISA. The lab reports will have to remain secret from you, and this Animal Health Act being proposed by Christy Clark’s government seeks not only to override Access to Information, she also seeks to override the Offence Act opening the door to harsher penalties. The offence for failing to keep information confidential will draw the highest penalty.
Whether or not the current outbreak is a threat to wild stocks, it is one more concern added to the list of risks associated with fish farming. Sites such as Farmed and Dangerous call attention to an industry that poses such ongoing threeats as sea lice, algae blooms, marine mammal deaths and marine debris.
Problems with aquaculture are similar to those that leave a trail of environmental problems associated with industrial agriculture. Helene York described them this way in The Atlantic:
The few large-scale operators that are positively rated by conservation organizations grow fish in land tanks that come with high energy inputs, an environmental cost generally not measured by marine scientists. Others are lauded for using grains rather than fish meal to feed their farmed creatures. That’s good for the ocean’s stock of healthy little fish, but not good when the fertilizers applied to grow the grains create dead zones in the ocean like the massive one in the Gulf of Mexico. Scaling up in concentrated locations has its problems.
Voltaire was right. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The IHN virus issue is just one more example of the consequence of addressing one problem (dwindling fish stocks) by creating another (environmental degradation and disease).
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Photos of Adams River sockeye salmon run by Cathryn Wellner