Bloody waters are roiling the fish-farm controversy following the broadcast of gory video on Canadian national television of a red plume of effluent from an Atlantic salmon processing plant spewing into a major wild salmon migratory route.
The video was shot in British Columbia by Tavish Campbell, a photographer and fish-farm opponent, and was first broadcast by CTV News.
Alexandra Morton, a fisheries biologist and critic of Atlantic salmon net-pen farming, said independent lab tests of samples taken from the effluent showed the plume contained PRV, a contagious virus that can infect wild salmon. The sample also contained live intestinal worms, she said.
“Living worms in the bloodwater suggests it was not treated,” Morton said of the fish waste. “And this is going into the largest wild salmon migration route.”
The video has stirred up concern on both sides of the border about an industry already under attack.
In Washington, following an escape of Atlantic salmon from Cooke Aquaculture’s Cypress Island farm last August, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, has said he will introduce legislation this coming session to phase out net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon by 2025.
He also wants the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state agencies to speed up their work updating guidelines for net-pen farms, which have not been changed in 20 years. “My entire approach is the cautionary principle,” Ranker said. He said he hopes British Columbia will also take a hard look at its fish-farm operations.
“Orca whales and salmon and disease don’t know international boundaries,” Ranker said. “It’s why Canadians need to step up on how they discharge into the Salish Sea,” the transboundary body of water that unites the Puget Sound and Canadian ecosystems.
A statement on the website for Brown’s Bay Packing declared that the plant’s waste treatment exceeds provincial government standards and meets best practices for the industry, including disinfection of waste. The plant is at Campbell River, on the east side of Vancouver Island.
George Heyman, British Columbia’s minister for the environment, told reporters this week the government will be reviewing the plant’s operations and permits, some of which were issued nearly 30 years ago. The government also will conduct inspections and review the tests done by Morton and perhaps do some testing of its own to determine if the effluent is polluting the water.
In Washington state, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, the only producer of farmed Atlantic salmon in eight net-pen farms in Puget Sound, has its fish processed at one plant: Independent Packers in Seattle.
There, the fish waste is disposed of in King County’s municipal sewer system, where it is routed to the West Point sewage plant for treatment, including disinfectant. The company pays a surcharge to King County for disposal of its waste.
“All our corporate processing plants have strict biosecurity and waste management protocols in place,” Nell Halse, spokeswoman for Cooke Aquaculture, said in an email to The Seattle Times. “That means that all solid waste is captured and disposed of according to strict protocols and processing waste water is treated according to regulation before it is discharged.”
Disease fears here
The concern about disease spreading from net-pen fish farms – open-water cages filled with hundreds of thousands of fish – has been the subject of intense and ongoing scientific research.
Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) detected in the sample, according to Morton, occurs not only in British Columbia and in farmed salmon, but in Puget Sound. It could turn up in fish tested for it here, said Kenneth Warheit, who supervises fish health programs for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
However, the virus – which is contagious and can be transmitted to wild salmon – does not necessarily make a fish sick.
One study in British Columbia showed a statistical association between PRV and HSMI, or heart skeletal muscle inflammation, a potentially lethal fish disease that has bedeviled farmed fish, especially in Norway. The study did not determine that PRV caused HSMI, and the condition has never been found in Washington fish.
PRV is not among pathogens tested for in farmed fish by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which authorizes testing by a third-party lab of eggs and fish for some pathogens each time they are moved. That’s three instances: when the eggs are imported to the hatchery (they come from Iceland); again after 30 days’ incubation in the hatchery; and a third time, when the hatched salmon are moved to net pens to grow to final size.
By state law, the department cannot require salmon farms to test for any pathogen the department does not test for in its own hatchery fish – a far larger operation involving the raising and planting of more than 150 million salmon and steelhead every year in Washington waters. It’s one of the largest hatchery programs in the world, operating for more than a century.
The department today does not have explicit authority to test farmed fish for disease as they are growing in net pens in Puget Sound, though the department director could mandate testing if necessary to protect the public’s waters and fish, Warheit said.
Cooke is required to report any outbreak of disease at its farms beyond minor occurrences to the department. It also must report regulated pathogens that turn up in its own testing, and medication of its fish.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife is in negotiations with Cooke to modify the state’s testing protocol of farmed Atlantic salmon, with the goal of broadening the state’s testing authority to include testing at the farms.