That title isn’t meant to be a trigger for a call to arms, rather it is meant to provide some context around some of the controversy swirling around farmed salmon and disease origins. There are those who would have everyone believe that the aquaculture industry is somehow responsible for the decline of Pacific salmon on our coast. But that completely ignores the fact that there have been millions of Atlantic salmon intentionally transplanted into the Pacific in the hopes of starting a sports fishery.

It’s convenient to think that any perceived problems associated with Atlantic salmon farming on the BC coast are a result of the current open net pen operations, but it is also ignorant to do so.

Maybe the virus has always been here. Or maybe the virus arrived with one of those millions of fish imported some time in the past 100 years. Or maybe the virus arrived in the ballast water of a ship.

The reality is that we just don’t know for sure, but we should recognize that there is clear data demonstrating that the virus has been here longer than the salmon farms have been present.

To claim otherwise is willfully ignoring the facts but, these days, that does seem to be de rigeur.

This week a paper was released in advance of its publication in a journal I’m not familiar with, and which is new enough that it has no impact factor. It makes me wonder if the authors were either consciously trying to get it out as quickly as possible, and if the review process on it might not be as rigorous as the more prominent journals. Probably a bit of both given some of the statements within.

The science in the paper is actually quite interesting, biologically speaking, but the conclusions are a bit much, and the fact that the authors come right out and suggest that farmed fish represent a threat to wild fish is overstepping the data within.

It’s particularly interesting that the virus in question affects Pacific salmon so differently than it seems to affect Atlantic salmon, it’s not surprising given that they are completely different genus’, but its’ still interesting. But given the history below, the virus “might” transmit from cultured fish to wild fish and “might” cause disease in wild fish under the “right” environmental conditions, and “might” lead to reduced survival in some stocks under the “right” environmental conditions….. That is an awful lot of “might” to hang your hat on and make a decision, and the statements smack more of activism than unbiased science.

But what I often hear as a retort is that we should use the precautionary principle and shut the industry down in the open ocean.

OK, but if we follow that logic, we should also shut down all salmon fishing until the fish have an opportunity to rebound to sustainable levels.

The problem with applying that precautionary principle is that we tend to apply it to those things that we aren’t familiar with and we have learned to dislike, in this case because one woman has waged a personal war against an industry and we’ve collectively bought into her manipulative language, which serves to scare people deeper into the cognitive and emotional biases that she created for them. She is a master manipulator and a champion to the conspiracy minded mob.

As I say, if we use the same logic and apply it judiciously, then we have to shut down salmon enhancement hatcheries too, both big and small. Enhancement hatcheries are also salmon aquaculture, whether or not people like to apply that word to it. Hatcheries rear juvenile salmon in high densities and supply the same concentrated feeds that industry uses, vaccinate fish where possible, and treat sick fish with pharmaceuticals to help them stay healthy. They are subjected to surface waters at some point in their lives, and they acquire the same viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi that industry copes with. And then they go one step further and release the fish into the environment to co-mingle with wild fish, in the hopes that they will supplement natural populations and promote greater returns.

But they also share bugs back and forth.

It’s naive to think that hatcheries that release fish to support wild populations should be treated differently. Morton has been in a legal battle to have justice rule that government cannot allow fish infected with the naturally occurring virus. If industry can’t release their fish if their fish screen positive for PRV, enhancement facilities will be subject to the same principled regulations. As they should be.

What then?

It is going to happen that enhanced fish screen positive. Just wait for the followup paper. Spoiler alert…it’s present in out migrating juvenile salmon.

What next?

People are so short sighted that they can barely see the end of their noses.

One cannot be considered in isolation of the other. If we decide that PRV infected fish may not be placed into the environment and must be reared on land, we must apply the same principles to hatchery production. If we cannot release hatchery fish, then we remove the support for natural populations that allows for many important salmon fisheries to exist.

A naturally occurring virus is going to be seen in both farmed and wild fish, and it’s going to be more evident in farmed fish because they are going to be more impacted by it both because of their close quarters and because we keep them safe from predators that would remove the infected. We won’t see the same level of infections in wild fish since Mother Nature removes the weaker fish through predation, which, to the uneducated, provides a false impression that the same diseases are less prevalent in wild populations.

I used to be anti-Atlantic in BC, until I started thinking about the genetic implications. Raising native species is far more dangerous, in my mind. Farming works best when the animals being raised are fat, lazy, grow fast, and wouldn’t fare well in the wild. The same goes for salmon. So if we breed fat lazy salmon that can interbreed with our wild fish, that seems like a genetic risk that I realized was far greater than any risk perceived by the escape of an animal that clearly doesn’t survive in our waters, despite our best efforts.

If an Atlantic salmon gets loose, it isn’t going to interbreed with a Pacific salmon, and there is over 100 years worth of evidence that they can’t seem to get a foothold here. There has been evidence of spawning, but no run has ever established. Ecologists have surmised that the juveniles occupy a similar ecological niche to predatory sculpins. My personal thought is that the IHN virus, native to our waters and relatively benign to Pacific stocks under natural conditions, has wiped out anything that tried to establish – IHNV is like Ebola to Atlantic salmon since the virus doesn’t exist in the Atlantic and Atlantic salmon therefore have no evolutionary relationship with the virus.

Further to that, the fact that PRV is NOT like Ebola to Pacific salmon in the sense that it causes very low mortality and only under certain circumstances, tells me that the relationship between Pacific salmon and PRV is not new.

That the organization that provided much of the funding for the paper, the federally incorporated organization receives its funding from sportfishing salmon tags takes a position on open net pen farms seems very inappropriate. Moving salmon farming on land is a death knell for the industry in BC. It will put many people out of work in a highly regulated industry that does a better job of producing a healthy dietary meat than do poultry farms. If the organization wishes to advocate for protecting wild salmon, it shouldn’t do so without advocating for closure of the very fisheries it promotes.

I simply don’t understand the logic of people who rail against fish farms and tell people that they shouldn’t eat farmed salmon because they are killing wild salmon…and then they go to the grocers of the restaurant and demand wild salmon on their dinner plate….which actually does kill wild salmon.

Millions of Atlantic salmon introduced to B.C. streams since 1905

Randy Shore

An undated handout photo of Atlantic salmon in a fish farm in B.C.

More than eight million Atlantic salmon have been intentionally released into B.C. rivers and lakes, beginning more than a century ago.

With the support of the federal government, dozens of attempts were made to establish viable Atlantic salmon populations on the West Coast between 1905 and 1935.

The experiments are documented in studies of salmonid distribution dating to the 1950s and as recently as 2002, which concluded that no spawning populations had survived.

The escape last month of 165,000 Atlantic salmon from an ocean-based fish farm in the San Juan Islands has reignited concerns that escapees could out-compete Pacific salmon species or colonize B.C. rivers.

But history has shown that Atlantic salmon don’t feed well in the Pacific and have never established spawning populations outside their natural range despite transplant programs around the world.

“There are Pacific salmon in Lake Ontario, which is home for Atlantic salmon and guess who is winning? The Pacific species,” said Tony Farrell, a professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of B.C.

Early efforts to establish the East Coast native here may have been a response to pressure from anglers, who were keen to catch Atlantic salmon, which were considered superior to Pacific species, said Farrell.

The number of fish released in a year varied from as few as 1,200 in 1906 to as many as 1.1 million by 1928.

“At the time the Fraser River sockeye was in the midst of one of the biggest population crashes in history after the Hell’s Gate slide in 1913 that blocked spawners,” he said. “There were about a million (Atlantic salmon) released each year from 1923 to 1928.”

Atlantic salmon release programs on the West Coast were a collaboration between the provincial government and the Dominion Department of Fisheries, said Andrew Thomson, regional director for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

“The conversation goes back to the late 1800s, when it was not uncommon to introduce fish to places all around the world and Atlantic salmon were deemed to be a prized game fish,” he said.

An Atlantic salmon at the Glacier Falls fish farm. Bill Keay / Vancouver Sun

B.C. appears to have been the target of one of the world’s most intensive programs of Atlantic salmon introductions.

“Nearly 200 introductions were made into 52 different water bodies and a total of 13.9 million eggs, alevins, fry or smolts were introduced,” according to a 2017 report to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The Cowichan River on Vancouver Island was repeatedly stocked beginning in 1905 with hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon in various early life stages. Eggs were sourced from hatcheries on the Atlantic coast of Canada, but also from Scotland, according to a UBC alien-species report. The report notes three credible reports of Atlantic salmon that may have been the product of local spawning being caught by anglers in the Cowichan River, but none since 1926.

Juvenile fish were also released into the Coquitlam River, Lillooet River, Harrison Lake, the Campbell River, Comox Lake, Horne Lake, Nanaimo Lake, Cowichan Lake and Koksilah River.

“None of these introductions was successful in terms of establishing runs of Atlantic salmon on the British Columbia coast,” reads the OECD report.

Foreign fin fish introduced to B.C. that still thrive today include Brown trout, Speckled Char, American Shad, Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass and Yellow Perch.

“The DFO no longer promotes the introduction of new species into British Columbia and we have programs in place to monitor sightings of invasive species,” said Thomson.

The Atlantic Salmon Watch program is monitoring B.C. waters for escapees and signs of spawning.

“If we find Atlantic salmon in our river systems as a result of the recent escape we will go in and remove them, not because they present a significant threat, but if we have an opportunity to remove a foreign species, why wouldn’t we?” he said.