Coalition Challenges Feds to Stop Spread of Disease in BC’s Fish

DFO Failing to Protect Wild Stocks from Disease at Fish Farms

Media Release: June 9, 2005

VANCOUVER – Sierra Legal Defence Fund has filed a formal complaint today with the Auditor General of Canada against the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Representing the Georgia Strait Alliance, United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU-CAW) and David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Legal claims that the federal government is neglecting its mandate to protect BC’s wild salmon by failing to prevent the possible spread of disease from salmon farms to wild fish. The four groups are challenging the federal government to adopt comprehensive, legally binding disease reporting and control procedures for the aquaculture industry, comparable to those of the United States and European countries.

“Sick fish spread disease, and this problem is made worse by the current situation in BC. Millions of farmed salmon in the province have died off from disease epidemics, yet the DFO has done nothing to investigate the probable spread of disease to wild fish stocks,” said Suzanne Connell of the Georgia Strait Alliance. “And because the industry uses open net pens, the spread of disease to wild fish is inevitable.”

When a disease strikes a BC salmon farm, the fish are allowed to remain in the water. The condition can run its course for months, possibly infecting wild salmon migrating past the area. Meanwhile thousands of salmon escape fish farms each year in BC, increasing the risk of spreading disease to wild stocks.

“There’s clear scientific evidence from around the world that wild stocks have been infected by diseases spread from farmed salmon, but the Canadian government is ignoring threats to our fish in BC,” said Sierra Legal Defence Fund Lawyer Sean Nixon. “Canadian fish farmers are not even required to report disease outbreaks to federal authorities, and right now the DFO has no reliable mechanism in place to determine when fish farms might be infecting wild stocks.”

“Disease spread from fish farms could devastate our wild salmon fisheries and hurt coastal communities,” said Fishermen’s Union Vice-president, Garth Mirau. “Back in the early 1990s disease from fish farms wiped out wild stocks in 74 of Norway’s rivers, and we want strong action from government to ensure that could never happen here,” added Mirau.

The coalition of environmental groups is demanding the federal government require fish farmers to remove diseased fish from open net pens when a disease epidemic threatens wild fish. The complainants are also calling for a transition to closed tank fish farms to prevent the spread of disease to wild stocks in the first place. The DFO is obligated to respond.


Department of Fisheries and Oceans Complaint June 9, 2005 DFO Not Meeting its Responsibility to Protect West Coast Wild Salmon Stocks

  • The DFO does not have any laws or policies in place requiring mandatory reporting of fish disease and parasite epidemics at aquaculture sites in British Columbia.
  • The Department is not effectively monitoring the possible effects of disease epidemics at aquaculture sites on wild salmon stocks off Canada’s Pacific Coast.
  • Sierra Legal Defence Fund has submitted a petition to the Auditor General of Canada and the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) complaining about the DFO’s failure to meet these responsibilities. The Auditor General and CESD have a supervisory role to ensure that the DFO adequately responds to the complaint.

Petitioners Refute Federal Government’s Claims

  • “The DFO claims it is applying a precautionary and sustainable approach to managing Canada’s marine ecosystems, but it has consistently failed to address gaps in its knowledge about the effects of aquaculture on wild fish,” says Bill Wareham, Acting Director of Marine Conservation at the David Suzuki Foundation.
  • Sierra Legal is asking the DFO to live up to its mandate by managing Canada’s aquaculture industry in a genuine precautionary and sustainable manner.

Status Quo Could Lead to Serious Consequences

  • Diseased fish may shed disease pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses that can then enter the water column surrounding open net pens and expose fish outside the pens to those pathogens.
  • Fish diseases found on fish farms can be highly contagious and can cause massive mortalities in young salmon. An entire year class of wild salmon could be wiped out in a river or creek infected by one of these diseases.

Environmental Groups say Canada is Falling Behind

  • The World Organization for Animal Health, the European Union and most states in the U.S. have strict disease reporting and disease eradication protocols in place for a whole range of fish diseases.
  • Canada has no such disease reporting requirements and has no appropriate fish disease management plans in place.