Going Viral

Gazing out from the village of Tofino towards the rainforest-covered mountains of Clayoquot Sound, the view is spectacular. But who would imagine that just out of sight of town, 20 fish farms are tucked away up the emerald inlets, quietly polluting the pristine waters?

One of the challenges of rearing animals in close quarters is that disease can quickly spread through the population, wreaking havoc. We’ve all heard of avian flu outbreaks. Parents who send their kids to school understand this dynamic all too well.

There is a harmful, highly-contagious disease plaguing salmon farms here in BC. It comes from Norway, where open-net pen salmon farming first began decades ago. British Columbia is lagging behind Norway, but we are beginning to experience the same unsolvable problems they do. Norway has nearly destroyed their own wild salmon runs; but the Pacific Northwest still has marvellous wild salmon runs, unrivalled anywhere else in the world.

Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV)
This virus is called piscine orthoreovirus (PRV). Back in 2013 BC’s provincial veterinarian reported that 80% of BC salmon farms were infected with PRV. Ecojustice and independent biologist Alexandra Morton launched and won two PRV court cases; in 2015 and again in 2019. The judge ordered the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to use the precautionary principle, which would stop the issuing of licenses which contravene the Fisheries Act. DFO has to date failed to comply.

Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced on June 4th that his department will begin testing for PRV. But the devil is in the details: will the test results be made public? what will happen if the testing finds a positive? when will testing begin?

Some things are too important to leave up to government—especially if they’re not taking action. Clayoquot Action believes testing for PRV in the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Region is such a thing. To this end our Clayoquot Salmon Investigation program (CSI) has launched a new project called Going Viral. This summer our volunteers will be out in the Sound, doing citizen science with the goal of establishing whether or not PRV is currently present in Clayoquot, and on how many farms.

Presence of PRV was established in 2017 & 2018 when wildlife photographer Tavish Campbell dove under Creative Salmon’s processing plant to sample the blood water gushing out of the fish processing plant into Tofino Harbour. That blood contained fish tissues which tested positive for PRV.

No more PRV-infected fish in the sea
If the Going Viral study shows that salmon farms in Clayoquot are infected with PRV, people power can pressure governments and corporations to do the right thing—stop allowing PRV-infected fish to be put into open-net pens in the sea.

Ultimately, challenges such as PRV and the farm-related sea lice epidemic (which is devastating young wild salmon locally) will force companies like Cermaq and Creative to accept the obvious solution—get fish farms out of the sea. This will allow wild salmon populations to rebound, once again creating abundance for everyone living on the coast; from First Nations to bears to ancient cedars.

Dan Lewis is Executive Director of Clayoquot Action.