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B.C. to review fish-farm regulations on processing plants, pesticides

The province is looking to tighten rules on the fish-farming industry in response to concerns about pesticide-use in treating sea lice and outcry from a video showing “blood water” being released into the ocean near Campbell River.
Blood water discharges from an effluent pipe at Browns Bay Packing Company near Campbell River. The company processes farmed Atlantic salmon, and wild salmon advocates fear it will spread a highly contagious virus to wild stocks.

The province is looking to tighten rules on the fish-farming industry in response to concerns about pesticide-use in treating sea lice and outcry from a video showing “blood water” being released into the ocean near Campbell River.

The province announced Wednesday that it would review regulations covering fish-processing plants and how pesticides are used to treat sea lice.

The move came the same day the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans released its first “robust” analysis of how pathogens spread from farms to wild stocks.

B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said the provincial government was as surprised as the public to see a video of “blood-filled” effluent billowing into the water from Browns Bay Packing Plant near Campbell River.

“I’m sure many [processing plants] are operating well within their permits. But in a number of cases, those permits are 30 years old, the conditions on them don’t reflect modern science and they certainly don’t meet public expectations of keeping our marine environment clean,” Heyman said.

“I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of the review, but I think we want to apply the precautionary principle. If something is demonstrably safe, that’s fine. If the science is indeterminant on it, I don’t think we want to use wild salmon as our lab rats.”

The review of fish-processing plant regulations will ensure wastewater discharge does not host contaminants and pathogens that harm wild salmon. It will affect about 35 processing plants along the coast.

The sea-lice review will review the risk of pesticides, as well as how they applied, against the best available science.

The reviews will bring B.C. in line with best practices from other jurisdictions, Heyman said. Industry, First Nations and local communities will be consulted.

Also on Wednesday, DFO released the first in its series of 10 investigations into the risk that pathogens will spread from farmed to wild stocks.

The department found “minimal risk” that a deadly viral disease known as infectious haematopoietic necrosis, or IHN, will spread from farmed salmon to wild stocks — largely because the industry vaccinates its stock against the virus.

“This full, detailed risk assessment is the first robust analysis that has ever been completed for examining population-level effects of fish pathogen transfers from farmed fish to wild fish,” said federal fisheries scientist Jay Parsons.

IHN has been documented along the west coasts of Canada and the United States.

Federal licensing does not require fish farms to vaccinate their stocks against IHN, but all B.C. salmon farms have done so voluntarily since the last major outbreak about five years ago.

“When it does occur, it can be potentially quite impactful on both farmed salmon and wild salmon,” Parsons said. “But, as a result of vaccinations, there hasn’t been an outbreak on farms in the Discovery Islands since 2013.”

The risk-assessment focused on the Discovery Islands, which were identified as a potentially risky passage for Fraser River sockeye.

In the 2012 Cohen Commission investigation into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye, Justice Bruce Cohen found salmon farms in the Discovery Islands had the potential to introduce new diseases and make existing ones worse.

“Mitigation measures should not be delayed in the absence of scientific certainty,” he said.

He recommended a freeze on net-pen salmon farming in the area until Sept. 30, 2020. If the government determined that salmon farms posed more than a minimal risk to Fraser River sockeye before then, Cohen recommended it should prohibit their operations immediately.

Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said its members welcome the provincial reviews and are co-operating with DFO on its pathogen study.

All B.C. salmon farms have vaccinated their stocks since the last outbreak, about five years ago, he said.

Five of the 35 fish-processing plants under review belong to the association.

There are typically five to seven active salmon farms in the Discovery Islands each year, the association said.

“We welcome a review of any regulations and permitting processes to ensure that they meet best practices to review what’s happening in other parts of the world and review against the best available science,” Dunn said.

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