VANCOUVER — Updated measures announced by Fisheries and Oceans Canada today to help protect wild Pacific salmon and minimize their risk of exposure to piscine orthoreovirus is a step in the right direction, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. These new measures will include enhanced monitoring and testing for the virus, a pathogen commonly found on B.C. fish farms, and related diseases (heart and skeletal muscle inflammation and jaundice). In addition, the government will form technical working groups to further advance sciencebased policies.

These interim changes to existing policy reflect a move toward a more precautionary approach to aquaculture management in B.C.  Fisheries and Oceans has recognized uncertainty still surrounds PRV, but that the absence of full scientific certainty should not stop efforts to protect wild salmon. 

Migrating juvenile wild Pacific salmon are vulnerable to diseases transmitted between open net-pen fish farms and wild populations. Disease transmission is an additional stressor to wild salmon, which already face numerous pressures to their survival. The piscine reovirus has been linked to a surge in disease outbreaks in farmed Atlantic salmon in Scotland, Norway, Chile and Japan. Farmed Chinook salmon infected with the highly contagious PRV were found to have developed jaundice anemia, which can lead to organ failure. The same virus can cause heart and skeletal muscle inflammation in Atlantic salmon. 

Given the heated debate around this issue, it is encouraging to see DFO commit to more testing and monitoring for PRV in Canadian waters. As an interim measure, DFO announced that all B.C. freshwater hatcheries will be screened for the presence of two specific strains of PRV: the non-native Icelandic and Norwegian. The department will invest additional resources into conducting audits at farm sites to look for any possible instances of heart and skeletal muscle inflammation or jaundice syndrome. Unfortunately, Canada has not taken the opportunity to also test for the B.C. strain of PRV. This is a missed opportunity to help fill science gaps around that strain of virus.

“It is heartening to hear that the Minister for Fisheries and Oceans Canada acknowledges that there is a great deal of uncertainty concerning PRV and the potential impacts this virus may have on both wild and farmed fish,” says John Werring, senior science and policy adviser for the David Suzuki Foundation. “Given the uncertainties around what is known about this virus, inaction on this matter was not an acceptable option.”

The measures announced today are interim to provide time for consultation with First Nations. The department says it will continue to work with stakeholders across the spectrum to arrive at well informed, science-based decisions. 

Fisheries and Oceans also committed to establishing three technical working groups to advance knowledge regarding fish health, area-based approaches to aquaculture management and aquaculture production technologies.  This advice of these groups will be directly applied to any final decision regarding riskmanagement policy. Pressure is mounting to transition from open net-pen farms to closed containment farming. This will be one point of consideration for the latter group.

The David Suzuki Foundation has long advocated for actions to minimize or eliminate risks from opennet aquaculture and protect salmon along the British Columbia coast. Protecting wild salmon is key for maintaining biodiversity, recovering endangered species and protecting the future of coastal communities. Canadians must be assured that aquaculture is environmentally sustainable. Acknowledging the uncertainty concerning the potential impacts of PRV and implementing measures announced today provides Canada with the foundation to move forward.

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