As the clock ticks on 79 salmon farm licences in B.C. that expire this month, federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray came under intense pressure Friday at a meeting with the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) to not renew them and to do a better job of protecting First Nation rights to fish.
And both her department and the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) were criticized at the meeting by two scientists, including one of DFO's own, for what they characterized as a scientific body that is too heavily influenced by industry.
Murray heard from First Nations, who talked about their frustration of having to get DFO's permission to fish for food or having to buy salmon from grocery stores in years when salmon returns were too low to allow for a food fishery.
Many First Nations in B.C. believe salmon farms are at least contributing to, or even a principal cause of, declining wild salmon populations and are putting pressure on the federal government to rid B.C. waters of open-net salmon farms.
Murray is expected to decide in the coming days or weeks whether or not she will renew all, any or none of the 79 federal licences for salmon farms in B.C.
Meanwhile, a provincial process is also in the works to phase out some salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago.
In her address to the UBCIC, Murray talked about her "very complex assignment," which is to come up with a plan to transition the salmon farming industry in B.C.
One complication of that assignment is that some First Nations support and participate in the salmon farming industry.
"Sustainable aquaculture has an important role when it comes to feeding a hungry planet," Murray said. "However, the growth of this industry cannot come at the expense of wild salmon.
"Ultimately, our goal is to create an environment that incentivizes innovation towards new technologies, while at the same time working quickly to ensure that any potential interaction between wild and cultured fish are minimized or eliminated."
Murray's predecessor, Bernadette Jordan, ordered all salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area shut down by June this year, despite the advice of the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) that salmon farms pose no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon.
Salmon farmers went to court, and the Federal Court overturned that order last month. However, it may have been a pyrrhic victory since the farms have already vacated the Discovery Islands region.
Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, called into question the CSAS's integrity, suggesting the salmon farming industry influences it.
"There is zero objectivity," he said.
He urged all members of the UBCIC to lobby for the removal of salmon farms from B.C. waters to protect wild salmon.
"We're talking about extinction," he said.
Kristi Miller-Saunders and Gideon Mordecai (a researcher at the University of BC) spoke at Friday's meeting and earlier to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on April 28 against open-net salmon farming.
They have researched piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) and are convinced the virus poses a risk to salmon, notably sockeye and chinook -- a view not shared by a number of other scientists who have studied the virus.
Miller-Saunders is head of molecular genetics at DFO and was a head researcher for the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, a scientific collaboration between DFO and GenomeBC that has conducted studies of salmon pathogens.
In her address today, Miller-Saunders said two pathogens believed to be spread by open-net salmon farms to wild sockeye and chinook are of particular concern: PRV and Tenacibaculum maritimum.
Miller-Saunders said chinook can experience "profound thermal stress" in the Strait of Georgia before arriving in the Discovery Islands area, where fish farms were highly concentrated.
"This will increase their vulnerability to pathogens and disease," Miller-Saunders said. "Directly before they're potentially exposed to elevated levels of pathogens spilled over from open-net farms, these fish are already stressed."
PRV is a scientifically contentious pathogen. Miller-Saunders is convinced it causes disease in wild salmon. But experiments in both Canada and the U.S. have tried to induce disease in healthy salmon by exposing them to high viral loads of PRV and failed to do so, leading researchers to conclude that the strain of PRV found in B.C. does not cause disease, although a different strain has been shown to cause disease in Atlantic salmon in Norway.
Tenacibaculum maritimum, on the other hand, is known to cause Tenacibaculosis, a skin disease that can be fatal in fish, including salmon.
A recent study found concentrations of this bacteria spiked in wild salmon when they were in the immediate vicinity of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands.
Although the infections can be controlled in salmon farms with antibiotics, Miller-Saunders said, "farm salmon can still continue to carry the bacteria after treatment, so risk to wild salmon may not be contained by simple antibiotic treatment on farms. Moreover, wild salmon have no such health care system."
In the Broughton Archipelago, some salmon farms have been removed under an agreement between the provincial government and several First Nations, and Rick Johnson of the Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation said Friday that wild salmon in that area now appears to be recovering.
"The fry I see in my traditional territories are coming back…since the closure of the 10 fish farms," he said. "So it is working."
The science around salmon farming has become politicized, with anti-salmon farming lobbyists promoting the work of scientists whose research suggests salmon farms pose a serious risk to wild salmon.
Mordecai said the DFO has prevented research he and Miller-Saunders have done on PRV from getting to the fisheries minister. After publishing a paper with "strong evidence" that PRV poses a risk to wild salmon, he said DFO asked for a summary of the paper.
But when the CSAS provided the minister with its briefing on its assessment of the risks salmon farms pose to wild salmon, it didn't include Mordecai's and Miller-Saunders' research.
"I think the question we can ask is, 'can we rely on the CSAS process?'" Mordecai asked.
The answer to that is "yes," according to nine scientists across Canada who took the extraordinary step of recently writing an open letter defending CSAS.
The letter was in response to an April 28 presentation to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.
Miller-Saunders, members of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, and a number of fish-farm opponents had made presentations to the committee, in which the integrity of the CSAS was called into question.
The CSAS is a scientific body that often invites a range of scientists to peer review research on fisheries and oceans science. Contributors often include scientists outside of DFO, including university researchers.
The concern raised at the standing committee hearing was that scientists who contribute to CSAS assessments may sometimes also do research for the aquaculture industry.
"I have had concerns over the inclusion, or control, of these kinds of processes by industry," Miller-Saunders said at the committee hearing.
That prompted nine scientists — including the chair of the Canadian Research Chair for fish pathology culture and conservation at the University of BC, and the head of the department of pathology and microbiology at Atlantic Veterinary College — to write an open letter, published in the Globe and Mail on May 27.
In the letter, the scientists say "anti-salmon farming activists" have criticized the CSAS as being unreliable "because the reports did not support the activists' claim that salmon farming poses significant harm to wild salmon."
They go on to write that they felt compelled to write "to prevent propagation of any misinformation" and say Canadians can trust the scientific facts and advice of the CSAS.
"The CSAS process does not selectively ignore some of the available science, as a form of bias – which may not be true for other expressed opinions being presented to the fisheries standing committee," they write.