Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson should support changes to the way his department treats the science around salmon.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled several cabinet positions in July, including the fisheries portfolio. Jonathan Wilkinson, MP for North Vancouver, BC, is now the first West Coast member of Parliament to hold that position in 16 years. Promptly after assuming the posting, Wilkinson publicly committed “to a science-based approach to addressing issues relating to restoring salmon stocks.”

While the Minister’s statement is laudable, he has inherited a portfolio (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, or DFO) that many believe is beset with problems around how science is interpreted and applied. Using salmon farming as a case study, we provide examples that suggest there are serious concerns with DFO’s use of science and its response to external peer-reviewed scientific research. It is imperative that the Minister recognize and rectify these problems promptly, if he truly is committed to a science-based approach to salmon management and conservation. A science-based approach implies enacting policy that is based on rigorous scientific studies, and adjusting practices and policies as new scientific evidence emerges.

PRV as a threat to wild salmon

In 2011, during the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, it was revealed that piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), a pathogen causing havoc in farmed salmon in Europe, is also present in British Columbia. Subsequent research identified PRV as the causative agent for a disease in farmed salmon known as heart and skeletal muscle inflammation. More recently it was revealed that wild salmon sampled near BC fish farms had high incidences of positive tests for the virus and that the presence of the virus in wild salmon may impede their ability to migrate upstream to spawn. Another 2018 study concluded that PRV can cause disease in chinook salmon.

Farmed salmon in British Columbia start in land-based hatcheries and are later transferred to open-net pens in the ocean. It was recently discovered that many hatchery-farmed salmon tested positive for PRV, and two parallel legal challenges were launched trying to stop the transfer of virus-positive fish to the ocean, due to the risk to wild salmon.

The looming possibility of a court-ordered stop to the stocking of farmed salmon has apparently prompted a new type of response by DFO staff, in the form of a document called “Rapid Science Response.” The Rapid Science Response on PRV was produced by DFO staff, and it concluded that the published evidence that there was more than a minimal risk to BC chinook salmon was “unsubstantiated.”

The Rapid Science Response is not peer-reviewed science — it is not vetted by independent experts or published as a rebuttal in a peer-reviewed journal. Nor did the response receive input from the senior DFO scientist leading the genomics work on PRV, as detailed in a letter by a principal investigator on the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative.

DFO aquaculture research programs

DFO’s history of salmon farming promotion is another source of potentially weak science policy. The department’s Program for Aquaculture Regulatory Research (PARR) is purportedly designed to increase our scientific knowledge about aquaculture, thus informing regulatory decision-making and policy development. Between 2008 and 2017, DFO spent $4 million on salmon farming-related research (on parasitic lice, pathogens and benthic habitat) in the Pacific region in this program (figure 1). Counting provincial and other federal dollars, a total of over $5 million was provided for research related to salmon farming by PARR in the Pacific region.

But what does this research achieve? Nearly $1.7 million was spent on research on parasitic lice alone, yet we are not aware of any resultant changes in the regulation of lice on fish farms. In contrast, numerous studies by academics and NGOs have identified parasitic lice from farmed salmon as a threat to wild salmon, mainly because of the link between the lice and decreases in wild salmon productivity. This suggests the need for regulatory changes.

The Aquaculture Collaborative Research and Development Program (ACRDP) is another DFO research initiative geared to “improve the competitiveness and sustainability of the Canadian aquaculture industry.” The research and development activities that ACRDP pursues are funded partially by the private sector. This arrangement has the potential to foster a conflict of interest that may affect DFO’s scientific objectivity. Due to conflict of interest concerns related to the industry promotion mandate, we think research projects that examine the effects of salmon farms on wild fish should not be housed within ACRDP.

Approximately $4.5 million per year is allocated to ACRDP projects. As DFO aquaculture science is once again being reviewed, this time by an independent expert panel led by Canada’s chief science advisor, Mona Nemer, we question whether taxpayers are getting the best unbiased science from these DFO-managed research programs.

Recommendations

The Minister should commit to making the results of the aquaculture science review public and should apply its findings to improve DFO’s use of science and the use of the precautionary principle. In the absence of scientific certainty, conservation measures should be taken when there is knowledge of a risk of serious or irreversible harm to wild stocks. Academic scientists from outside government and industry should be consulted regularly. There should also be an independent review of DFO salmon farming research programs such as PARR and ACRDP to ensure a lack of industry bias and sound use of funding.

DFO’s Rapid Science Response operates outside the normal scientific process, and Wilkinson, as a minister who publicly commits to science-based approaches, should scrap it.

Finally, the recommendations of the 2012 Cohen Commission should be implemented immediately to protect wild stocks. Among other things, the commission called for the prompt removal of salmon farms from the Discovery Islands region of BC if it is determined that they pose more than a minimal risk to wild salmon. The recent chinook salmon study determined exactly that.

Sound risk management of our natural resources should be underpinned by science. Yet Canada’s own fisheries and oceans department appears to actively promote uncertainty and downplay the impacts of salmon farms on wild salmon, via viruses and parasites. Government research programs on the effects of salmon farms have resulted in no meaningful changes to regulations to protect wild salmon in BC, perhaps due to underlying industry promotion objectives. The recent non-peer-reviewed assertions by certain DFO staff denying the link between viruses and disease in chinook salmon raise concerns about conservation, but they could also create uncertainty about the Minister’s commitment to a “science-based approach to addressing issues relating to restoring salmon stocks.”

Photo: Canadian Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson addresses a session on oceans as the G7 environment, oceans and energy ministers meet in Halifax on Sept. 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan


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