The Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) is calling for an end to open-water salmon aquaculture, in the wake of new research linking a virus found in Atlantic salmon to weakened Pacific salmon stocks.
The independent charity which has monitored coastal salmon stocks for more than 30 years released a new joint study with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) earlier this week which raised new concerns about the piscine orthoreovirus (PRV).
According to DFO lead scientist Kristi Miller-Saunders, the study found “PRV-1 was intimately involved in the development of jaundice/anemia in Chinook salmon,” and suggested it could cause cell death in Chinook while only causing inflammation in Atlantic salmon.
The PSF has now made a formal recommendation that the province moves to closed-containment salmon farming, based on its own research, a recent federal report and “the chronically low abundance of most wild Pacific salmon populations today.”
The latest DFO Pacific salmon outlook found that of 91 B.C. spawning groups, 30 were below what is necessary for a healthy population and a further 24 had a mixed outlook.
“This transition to closed containment will take time but the removal of open net-pen farms along migratory routes of wild Pacific salmon, particularly for those stocks of greatest concern, should occur as soon as possible,” said a PSF media release.
WATCH: New study shows wild salmon are infected by fish farm viruses
In particular, it said the province should move quickly to end open-pen farming in areas adjacent to migratory routes of Fraser River Sockeye salmon.
“Those stocks are of great public concern, have the strongest annual assessment programs to monitor change, and are known to be exposed to farms in Johnstone Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound,” it said.
The foundation said it is prepared to assist the provincial and federal governments in moving farms out of the open waters.
“We’re disappointed in what the Pacific Salmon Foundation has said today,” said B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association spokesperson Shawn Hall.
“We’re currently actively involved in research projects with them into the health of salmon, and that work’s not complete, so they’ve come out with a verdict before that research is complete.”
Hall argued that the conclusions of the study are “speculative at best,” and said a number of other research initiatives had found no link between salmon farming and the health of wild salmon stocks.
WATCH: Fish farm critics release shocking new video
Hall said more than half of the fish that humans eat come from fish farms, an economy he said can’t yet be replicated on land.
“What exists on land now is small farms in niche markets. And there’s good research underway about the potential,” he said.
“We could see more closed containment in the future, but as it is now, it’s currently not viable on a larger scale, the technology just isn’t there to raise fish on land.”
In an emailed statement, Ministr of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Doug Donaldson said fish farm regulation is in the hands of the DFO. However it said it is concerned about protecting wild salmon and interested in moving to closed containment where possible.
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“We remain optimistic about the opportunities for closed-containment, although we recognize more work needs to be done. There is one existing closed containment facility in B.C. and there are advancements in the technology in other parts of the world,” said Donaldson.
“We are keeping a close eye on facilities in places like Scotland and Norway to see how our industry can adapt.”
In the meantime, he said the province is engaged in government-to-government conversation with 11 First Nation groups on the issue, though it is too early to speak to the outcome of discussions.
The call comes in the midst of a simmering conflict over the future of open net-pen salmon farms.
First Nations have been fierce opponents of the farms, which they say are contributing to disease in wild fish. First Nations activists occupied two fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago last fall.
The David Suzuki Foundation and 50 of B.C.’s top chefs also published an open letter to the provincial government earlier this year, calling on officials not to renew 20 licences for open net-pen farms in the area.
In December, another study by activist biologist Alexandra Morton found that 95 per cent of farmed Atlantic salmon in supermarkets showed signs of PRV infection.
The industry insists its methods are sustainable, and says salmon farms are an important part of B.C.’s economy, employing 6,600 people and generating about $1.5 billion in economic activity.