August 30, 2016 2:13 am
Updated: August 30, 2016 8:30 pm

B.C. Environmentalists: Do farmed salmon threaten wild species with disease?

WATCH: Environmentalist Alexandra Morton has released footage that she says shows diseased salmon in coastal B.C. fish farms. But as Linda Aylesworth reports, the industry is defending its practices.

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A B.C. environmentalist claims she has shocking new evidence that B.C. fish farms are carrying diseases that could potentially infect wild salmon.

Earlier this summer, biologist Alexandra Morton and members of local First Nations visited a salmon farm in the Broughton Archipelago on B.C.’s central coast.

“I had 10 minutes to stick my camera under the water and look at these fish and this is what I saw,” Morton said. “I was stunned. I saw a fish go by with a big tumour on his head.”

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Then she saw a salmon that was so emaciated that it hardly looked like a salmon at all.

READ MORE: Salmon numbers in B.C. show shocking drop

“This is one of the symptoms of heart and skeletal muscle inflammation,” Morton said. “It actually damages the salmon’s heart so that they become so weak they can barely move.”

The disease, also known as HSMI, was recently identified in a B.C. salmon farm by scientists at Nanaimo’s Pacific Biological Station.

We know HSMI is here but is it linked to the contagious piscine reovirus, also known as PRV?

READ MORE: Cohen report on B.C. sockeye salmon may see action

B.C. salmon farmers say no.

“What we don’t know is if that virus actually causes a disease and so far through a lot of testing it’s shown that it does not cause any disease in fish,” Jeremy Dunn of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said.

The virus-disease connection is very difficult to study.

“The concerns over this particular virus and the potential risk to wild salmon, we’re early days,” Dr. Kristi Miller of the Pacific Biological Station said. “We didn’t even know this virus existed until just a few years ago and there really hasn’t been very much study.”

That is changing and Dr. Miller credits the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into B.C.’s declining salmon stocks in 2012.

“It’s changed attitudes here in the department,” she said.

– With files from Linda Aylesworth

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