Nightmare in New Brunswick: A Lesson for BC

A Report by the Friends of Clayoquot Sound April, 1998


British Columbia is at a crossroads. For thousands of years wild salmon have been a central part of life on the West Coast. Under pressure from continued habitat loss and overfishing, however, the future of wild salmon is now in question.

Salmon farmers have responded with promises of endless crops of farmed salmon and hundreds of jobs for coastal communities. With around 80 active open-to-the-water sites, farmed salmon production amounts to about 25,000 tonnes each year. Furthermore, the industry is lobbying the BC government to lift its 1995 moratorium on new sites and is seeking an annual growth of five to six percent (Province, 24/04/98). This would see the industry double in size within 15 years, and triple within 23 years.

Because both the Canadian and BC governments act as advocates for the industry (see Box 1), it has fallen to First Nations and environmentalists to point out that salmon farming also has significant costs. First Nations point to the dozens of traditional shellfish harvesting areas which have been wiped out by salmon farm pollution. Furthermore, the question of whether salmon farming damages wild stocks through disease outbreaks, escapes of Atlantic salmon, and depression of prices continues to be prominent in the minds of wild-stock fishermen, First Nations, and environmentalists alike.

Open netcage salmon farms pepper the BC coast

Indeed, because of the “significant gaps in the scientific knowledge” found by BC’s recent Salmon Aquaculture Review (SAR) process, our principal means of learning about the impacts of the industry is through studying the experience of other jurisdictions with longer salmon farming histories. In June of 1997, the Sierra Legal Defense Fund released “Containing Disaster: Global Lessons from Salmon Aquaculture,” which documented the high costs of salmon farming in Norway, Scotland, Ireland, and Chile.

Today, we need look no further than the East Coast of Canada for the latest lesson in the costs of salmon farming. On April 28, 1998, the New Brunswick cabinet announced a $10 million bailout package for a salmon farming industry ravaged by infectious salmon anemia (ISA). More than 25% of the industry was temporarily shut down in an effort to control the disease, representing a loss of about $30 million to the industry. Whether this would control the spread of the disease remains to be seen.

The purpose of this report is to examine the New Brunswick crisis and to ask whether the same could happen here in BC. With the salmon farming industry and government PR machines spinning a one-sided tale of economic opportunity, an informed debate demands that the risks of salmon farming be carefully documented and brought to public attention.

Watchdogs and Lapdogs

Government agencies have emerged as advocates for industries that they are entrusted to regulate. The obvious conflict of interest that this entails comes to a head in times of crisis, such as with the ISA outbreak in New Brunswick. There, the government allowed the industry’s short-term economic interests to prevail over taking the necessary action, making the disease situation worse.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is a salmon-farming advocate, creating the position of Commissioner for Aquaculture Development in late 1997, and pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into the development of genetically engineered salmon in its West Vancouver lab. DFO also continues to allow the importation of Atlantic salmon eggs into BC, ever since the deputy minister ordered the regional director to overrule the objections of his own scientists in 1986 (Ellis, 1996).

Agencies of the BC government have also assumed an advocacy role for the salmon farming industry. Officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now shifted to the new Ministry of Fisheries), have continued to allow the stocking of soon-to-expire farm tenures, and have inserted aquaculture objectives into Vancouver Island land-use planning framework without any due process.

In the Spring of 1998, in the face of significant opposition from First Nations and environmentalists to industry expansion, Premier Clark’s office initiated discussions at the Band level with various First Nations, offering them government financing for joint ventures in salmon farming. Money for the 81 studies and initiatives called for by the SAR process, however, was not on the table.

Infectious Salmon Anemia

For the magnitude of economic losses that ISA has caused, remarkably little is known about the disease. First detected in Norway’s salmon farming industry in 1984, the disease was thought to be unique to that area until it also appeared in New Brunswick in 1996.

When fish become infected with ISA, they are lethargic, sink to the bottom of the pens, get swollen abdomens, and have bulging and blood-spotted eyes. The infected fish have severe anemia, and mortalities are high. When the disease is discovered, farmers quickly harvest, process, and market the fish for human consumption. The origins of ISA are still unknown. Some speculate that it is latent within other species for which is it not pathogenic, and spreads to salmon. ISA has been shown to survive, for example in rainbow and sea trout.

It is also possible, however, that ISA is a mutant of an existing non-pathogenic virus which is already “out there.” The intensive conditions and activities of open netcage salmon farming may allow the virus to mutate and also provide many captive hosts (Torgersen, pers. comm.).

Scientists have found that the virus is most active when waters are between 5 and 25 degrees Celsius, making its impacts somewhat seasonal (Gleaner, 25/03/98).

The disease is spread either by the blood, mucus and faeces of diseased fish, or by carriers such as sea lice. This raises two secondary problems:

  1. Since sick fish are usually harvested and processed for consumption, Norway has found that ISA is readily transmitted in the effluent of processing plants and has therefore required treatment in these plants.
  2. When sea lice concentrations become too high, they are a problem in themselves. Because they can also carry ISA, however, effective control of ISA requires 100% eradication of sea lice (Nylund et al., 1993), making heavy applications of anti-parasitic drugs like ivermectin necessary (see Box 2).

Despite its name, ISA can infect other kinds of fish. Tests have shown that herring can be infected, but whether salmon infect herring or vice-versa (or neither) is not known (Buerkle, pers. comm.). The question of whether wild salmon pass ISA to farmed salmon or vice-versa is likewise unresolved.

The height of Norway’s ISA crisis was in 1990 when 98 farms were infected. Through isolation, requirements that processing plants treat their effluent, and strict slaughter policies, Norway confined ISA to four or five sites in 1996, and now considers ISA to be a “manageable disease.” There are no vaccines or drugs to combat it.

ISA in New Brunswick

ISA was thought to be confined to Norway until the symptoms of the disease began to appear in New Brunswick in late 1996. It was not until September of 1997 that scientists at the Research and Productivity Council in Fredericton managed to isolate the ISA virus and confirm its identity with the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Oslo, Norway.

It appears that the ISA virus isolated in New Brunswick is a different strain from that in Norway. In Norway, ISA causes more mortalities, and causes more severe blood discolouration in the infected fish (Northern Aquaculture, 11/97).

ISA was initially found in three bays in Charlotte County – Lime Kiln Bay, Bliss Harbour, and Seal Cove. On December 11, 1997, the New Brunswick Fisheries and Aquaculture Department ordered all fish in infected cages to be slaughtered. By the following March, 280,000 fish had been slaughtered in 33 infected cages on nine sites.

Despite the slaughter order, some fish farmers delayed in carrying it out, claiming that only some fish were infected, that their crops were not yet at a harvestable age, and that they would incur serious economic hardship if the order was carried out.

ISA control requires treatment of fish farm processing plant effluent

The farmers also argued that since the government was issuing the slaughter order, that the government should also compensate them. The province offered interest-free loans and loan guarantees to help affected farmers, and initiated discussions with the federal government and industry on a recovery fund.

When it became clear that ISA continued to persist in the three bays, a second more comprehensive slaughter order was issued on March 3, 1998. This time, following Norway’s example, the order covered all of the fish in an infected site, rather than just slaughtering the fish in an infected cage. The order would affect 1.2 million fish on 16 sites, and was to be carried out by March 31.

Along with the March 3 order, the government announced the establishment of a $5 million bailout fund composed of $2.5 million in grants and $2.5 million in interest-free loans to the affected farms. The government also announced that affected farms could move to alternative sites.

Secrets and Lice

Sea lice can not only carry viruses like ISA, but in large concentrations are a problem in themselves. Controversial drugs like ivermectin are used by salmon farmers to combat them.

In April 1998, the BC Ministry of Environment confirmed that 107 kg of ivermectin was used in 1997 on salmon farms ranging from Clayoquot Sound to Quatsino Sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. The SAR process failed to raise the impacts of the drug on the marine environment of BC.

Ivermectin is not specifically approved for use in the salmon farming industry, and is prescribed “off label” by veterinarians. A 1998 British review of tests done on ivermectin points to its extreme toxicity to marine life and to its persistence in the environment. The study concludes that “More data are urgently required on chronic toxicity, toxicity under more realistic conditions and persistence, bioavailability and bioaccumulation in the field. It is difficult to justify its continued use until these questions are answered” (Grant and Briggs, 1998).

BC salmon farmers claim that they are entitled to secrecy regarding the use of drugs like ivermectin based on “vet-client” privilege. Such privilege has no basis in law, and exists at the discretion of government. In Washington State, farms are required to annually disclose to the public the type and quantity of drug use on a site-specific basis.

Despite the new slaughter order, John Kershaw, the province’s director of aquaculture, indicated that some salmon farmers continued to drag their feet, asking for more compensation (Telegraph, 19/03/98). When the disease was also confirmed in Back Bay and Passamaquoddy Bay in mid-March, the salmon farmers lobbied to cancel the order on the grounds that it would not control the spread of the disease anyway (Telegraph, 31/03/98).

By late April, there were reports that ISA had reached two more bays, with veterinarians saying that with regards to salmon farming areas, they don’t know where ISA “isn’t” (Harvey, pers. comm).

Meanwhile, the ISA outbreak began to spur consolidation in the industry. Grand Isle Aquaculture Corporation went bankrupt in part due to ISA and was sold in April 1998 to a numbered company affiliated with Cooke Aquaculture (Gleaner, 22/04/98). Other small operations also faced much uncertainty.

On April 28, 1998, Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Danny Gray announced a new $10 million bailout package and the fallowing of 25% of the industry for 1998-1999, representing about a $30 million loss to the industry. All fish in the initial three infected bays would be slaughtered, as well as fish in infected cages in other bays, adding 700,000 fish to the 573,000 already slaughtered. The province also moved to have processing plant effluent treated, and to implement an equipment sterilization program.

Whether these measures will be enough to control the spread of the disease remains to be seen. In addition to impacts on the salmon farming industry, impacts on the wild stocks are unknown. It appears that like Norway, New Brunswick will treat the presence of ISA as “manageable,” and consider it an acceptable cost for the continued existence of open netcage salmon farming on its coastline.

ISA Lessons for BC

Could a similar ISA outbreak happen in BC? Because there is so little known about the virus, there is no evidence that it could, and also no evidence that it could not. The ISA virus may already be latent in BC waters, or it may never exist on the West Coast. Without further study, there is no way of knowing.

According to government officials, there has never been a reported case of ISA in BC, but the SAR report points out that in BC “Salmon farmers are not presently required to notify any authorities of any disease outbreaks that may occur on their farms” (BC, 1997).

Because of industry secrecy, it is unlikely that the public would ever be told of an outbreak. Given that ISA in particular is so contagious and causes so many mortalities, however, common sense dictates that an outbreak could not be kept secret for long.

Repeated reassurances that salmon farming poses “low risk” due to disease outbreaks are subject to question. Officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans which helps regulate salmon farming on both coasts of Canada told the SAR process that Canada has the best disease control policies in the world (Wristen, pers. comm.). The ISA disaster in New Brunswick does little to encourage faith in such statements.

Questions swirl about salmon farm drug use

The fact that a culture of secrecy and fear surrounds fisheries and aquaculture research in Canada also contributes to public distrust. Aquaculture critics have repeatedly encountered scientists and officials with access to important information who refuse to go on record for fear of being passed over for future government and industry contracts (Wristen, pers. comm.).

Whether the issue is the source of ISA or the likelihood of Atlantic salmon colonizing BC streams, the research necessary to conclude that salmon farming poses “low overall risk” is not being done. To date, industry has shown little willingness to fund such research, and neither the federal nor BC government has shown the political will to make it happen.

The UN Charter of Nature’s Precautionary Principle states:

Activities which are likely to pose a significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed (General Resolution, 37/7, 1982; emphasis added).

It is only with each successive salmon farming disaster around the world that the lack of knowledge about the impact of the industry is brought into focus. The critical question is whether BC must have a similar disaster before the precautionary principle is taken seriously on the West Coast.

The Protein Fiasco

As if New Brunswick’s wild-stock fishermen were not concerned enough at the ISA outbreak, in the Spring of 1998 a proposal was put forward to catch 1,000 tonnes of krill a year in the waters of Atlantic Canada to make feed for salmon farming (Globe, 17/04/98).

Krill are tiny shrimp-like creatures which serve as an important food source for herring, salmon, cod, and whales. A coalition of 26 fishing, First Nations, and environmental groups came together to oppose the scheme, citing the dangers of fishing lower and lower down the food chain (Victoria Times, 21/04/98).

Unlike other kinds of aquaculture, farming salmon causes a net loss of protein because salmon are carnivorous. The North American salmon farming industry relies heavily on feed produced from South American anchoveta, sardine, and jack mackerel stocks. In March 1998, however, El Nino caused a 85% fall in Peruvian fish landings over a year earlier (Sun, 25/04/98), and there are questions about the long-term viability of the stocks (Ellis, 1996).

Salmon farmers are therefore under intense pressure to get cheap protein from other sources. With a global population explosion, however, the world’s growing appetite cannot allow a net loss of protein to continue. Taking Responsibility

Presently, BC’s salmon farming industry relies upon a significant subsidy from the natural environment. The open-to-the-water netcages employed by the industry not only make the natural environment incur the risks of disease outbreaks, but also the pollution from the sites, and the escape of exotic Atlantic salmon into BC’s streams and open waters.

During the SAR process, salmon farming critics called for the industry to take responsibility for some of its risks and costs through paying insurance for events such as disease outbreaks (BC, 1997). The ISA crisis in New Brunswick has shown, however, that the risks of salmon farming are too great for private insurance companies to take on. Bill Thompson of the New Brunswick Salmon Farmers Association pointed out that even in Norway, insurance companies for salmon farmers are heavily subsidized (Northern Aquaculture, 11/97).

While some salmon farming problems seem unsolvable (see Box 3), others can be addressed through the industry taking responsibility for its risks and impacts through the introduction of new technology. More environmentally benign systems to replace the present open netcage systems are presently under development and operate on a trial basis on the West Coast.

Salmon farming systems can be put into four categories in order of increasing environmental responsibility:

  1. Open netcage systems: These are used on all of BC’s current farms, and allow a free flow of water, waste, and disease between the farmed fish and the natural environment.
  2. Semi-open netcage systems: These systems put the cages into a large bag with a hole in the bottom. While the “dead-zone” under the farm will have a smaller diameter, the system has essentially all of the impacts of open netcage systems.
  3. Closed systems: These systems are truly closed, lessening the risk of fish escape (and eliminating it if on land), and allowing the farm to direct its waste stream through pumping. The farm, however, still emits untreated waste and the risk of disease transfer remains. A trial system of this kind is being developed by Future Sustained Environment Aquaculture in Nanaimo, BC (Daily News, 30/03/98).
  4. Closed-loop systems: These systems are not only closed, but they also process their waste stream. This allows for treatment of both pollution and disease agents. A trial system of this kind is being operated by Mariculture Systems Inc. in Puget Sound, Washington State ( New York Times, 1/3/97).

The BC salmon farming industry has dismissed both closed and closed-loop systems as too costly (BC, 1997). The farmers argue that the realities of a global marketplace are such that if the industry in Chile and Norway continue to benefit from using open netcage systems, then forcing BC farms into closed systems would render them “uncompetitive.” The question then becomes whether BC will join other salmon farming jurisdictions in placing industry profit above environmental protection. The answer to this question has implications not only for the industry, but also for the fate of wild salmon on the West Coast.

Friends of Clayoquot Sound
Box 489, Tofino, BC, V0R 2Z0
Tel: (250) 725-4218 Fax: (250) 725-2527

Sources Cited

Buerkle Beth, Conservation Council of New Brunswick, personal communication, April 26, 1998.
British Columbia – Environmental Assessment Office. Salmon Aquaculture Review, Volume 1, August 1997.
Daily Gleaner, “Salmon virus spreading; Warmer waters means danger,” B12, March 25, 1998, Sandy Morgan.
Daily Gleaner, “Answers needed to save salmon,” B10, April 1, 1998, Sandy Morgan.
Daily Gleaner, “Bad News; Fish Farms at Risk,” C8, April 8, 1998, Sandy Morgan.
Daily Gleaner, “Salmon sold; Ross’s bankrupt business goes for $3.1 million,” April 22, 1998, Catherine Metcalfe.
Ellis, David. “Net Loss: The Salmon Netcage Industry in British Columbia,” David Suzuki Foundation, October, 1996.
Globe and Mail, “Krill proposal a test for Fisheries boss,” A7, April 17, 1998, Kevin Cox.
Grant, Alastair, and Briggs, Andrew, “Use of ivermectin in marine fish farms: some concerns,” Marine Pollution Bulletin, University of East Anglia, UK, forthcoming.
Harvey, Janice, Conservation Council of New Brunswick, personal communication via e-mail, April 27, 1998.
Nanaimo Daily News, “Local firm on cutting edge,” A1, March 30, 1998, Barry Gunn.
New Brunswick Telegraph Journal, “Deadly salmon disease spreads,” A1 & A6, March 19, 1998, Lisa Hrabluk.
New Brunswick Telegraph Journal, “Province lifts fish farm kill order,” A1, March 31, 1998, Mike Hawkins.
New York Times, “Cultivating the World’s Demand for Seafood; as Fish Farming Goes, It Faces Mounting Environmental Challenges,” March 1, 1997, Jon Christensen.
Northern Aquaculture, “Scientists isolate virus causing salmon mortalities in Bay of Fundy,” October, 1997, Sandy Morgan.
Nylund, A., Wallace, C., and Hovland, T.. “The possible role of L. salmonis in the transmission of infectious salmon anemia,” in Pathogens of Wild and Farmed Fish, by Boxshall, G. A., and Defae, D., (eds.), Ellis Horwood, New York, 1993.
Province, “Salmon farmers are poised to pounce,” A14, April 24, 1998, Charlie Anderson.
Sierra Legal Defence Fund. “Containing Disaster: Global Lessons on Salmon Aquaculture,” June 1997.
Torgersen, Yngve, Dr, Ministry of Agriculture, Norway. Personal communication via e-mail, April 28, 1998.
Vancouver Sun, “Peru – Fish Exports Fall 77 Per Cent in March,” E3, April 25, 1998.
Victoria Times Colonist, “Coalition fears krill harvest disastrous for sea fisheries,” F1, April 21, 1998.
Wristen, Karen, EAGLE project, SLDF, personal communication, April 27, 1998.