Death by a thousand cuts
“It’s an impact that we can actually do something about.”
Activist and photographer Tavish Campbell has been fighting for the protection of wild salmon for nearly his whole life. Two years after British Columbia’s fish farming industry was caught dumping piscine orthoreovirus-infected blood into Canada’s largest wild salmon migration route, he returned to those waters. He wanted to see if, in light of recent scientific confirmation of the devastating impact of this virus on salmon, anything had changed for the better.
Beth Finney (BF): These discoveries were made two years ago. Why is this still going on?
Tavish Campbell (TC): These farms are still operating all along the coast, growing fish that are infected with this virus. It’s not just about the processing plant, because even if the plant got some magical filter and cleaned up their act, ultimately these infected fish are still being grown in a wild salmon habitat. It’s not the processing plant that’s the problem. The problem is that we’re growing these fish in open pens in wild salmon habitat that are infected with this virus.
BF: So people are eating infected fish?
TC: Yes exactly. There’s not really been any research that I’m aware of, examining the potential impacts of this virus on humans. Currently we’re mainly concerned about its impact on other salmon. But yes people are definitely eating it. Most importantly, since the last Bloodwater story came out, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) published a paper that was very important because it showed that this virus does harm both Atlantic and Pacific salmon.
BF: Are you surprised that this behaviour is still continuing without any reprimand?
TC: In a sense I’m not surprised because DFO finds itself in a real bind – there’s a conflict of interest because on one hand they’re mandated to be protecting wild salmon, but they’re also mandated to promote aquaculture. It’s a conflict of interest that causes issues for them when they are faced with having to actually regulate this industry. It’s been interesting watching their response to this most recent paper. It’s been basically to try and cover it up and ignore it. This is not the first time they’ve been taken to court about allowing the release of infected fish farm fish into the ocean and they just refuse to acknowledge, and they refuse to do anything about it.
BF: Why do you think certain parties are so comfortable trying to cover this up and ignoring the urgency of the situation?
TC: It’s certainly a question we ask ourselves a lot here. I think part of it is this problem that you have one ministry that’s tasked with both regulating and promoting an industry. So, in a sense they want to see the industry thrive because it’s their job. It’s creating jobs for them – the aquaculture management division is a big part of DFO. It should be split up into two ministries. You should have one ministry that’s just solely responsible for ensuring the health of our oceans, our salmon and our coastlines. And that shouldn’t be mixed up with having to promote an industry that has obvious impacts on that.
BF: In the past two years have you been continually aware of this or was it a recent discovery?
TC: I hadn’t been able to dive these spots for a long time since the first Bloodwater story. Two years seemed like a good amount of time to come back and check in to see what had changed – to see if anything had changed. I was pretty devastated to find that nothing had changed, especially since we have this updated knowledge about the impacts of the virus. Last time, we knew that this virus caused HSMI – heart and skeletal muscle inflammation – but we didn’t have any scientific papers showing that it harmed Pacific salmon. We knew it harmed the Atlantic salmon. But in 2018, a very important paper was published showing that it caused the red blood cells of farmed Chinook salmon to rupture, leading to jaundice and organ failure. By extension, we can safely assume that it’s not a good thing for wild salmon either.
The problem is that it’s almost impossible to prove that this virus is killing wild salmon because in the wild, the minute a wild salmon is infected with anything and it starts to swim a little bit slower than any of its schoolmates it gets immediately removed by a predator. It’s the perfect crime because the evidence is removed.
BF: Is the industry relying on that challenge?
TC: Yes, which is insane because we’ve shown that it ruptures the red blood cells of Chinook salmon that are being grown inside the pen, so why would it not do the that to the very same species outside of the pen?
BF: How did it feel when you dove down and saw that the bloodwater was still billowing out?
TC: It brought up a few things. It was devastating to see that it was still happening. Heartbreaking, given the fact that we’re currently seeing are some of our largest populations of salmon on the B.C. coast collapse to near extinction. So yes, pretty scary to know that infected blood is still flowing, despite the fact that our salmon are disappearing before our eyes.
BF: Why was it ever an option to dispose of this effluent into the wild?
TC: I think originally it was because these processing plants would originally have been processing wild salmon. It’s one thing when you harvest a wild salmon from the ocean, process it and release the blood back into the ocean. In theory you’re not really going to be spreading anything around that isn’t already in the ocean. That’s much different than nowadays, because our wild salmon stocks have collapsed so much. These processing plants are still trying to survive and make money so they’re now processing farmed salmon. That’s where a big difference is, where you’re taking Atlantic salmon out of fish farms and fish farms are a perfect place for these viruses to gain hold. Then you’re taking those fish and processing them and dumping that blood into the water. It can be heavily infected with this virus. In the wild, in a natural setting, if a salmon becomes infected with the virus and that affects its ability to be healthy and swim fast it’s immediately removed by a predator. That’s nature’s way of dealing with these things in the wild – any slow or sick animals get removed. Obviously, that isn’t allowed to happen in a fish farm. The virus is able to do very well in these Atlantic salmon that they’re processing. They can they can be carrying incredibly high levels of this virus, way higher than you’d ever find in a wild salmon not in a pen.
BF: Do you think it could be related to the mass die-off we’ve seen recently in Clayoquot Sound?
TC: It’s hard to say. It’s not necessarily the virus that kills the salmon but it’s when you combine it with another stressor. So, say you have a warm water incident or a low oxygen incident or the fish is battling a plankton bloom. Often, it’s a combination of those two things. When fish are dying in large numbers in the fish farms yes it can be precipitated by an algae bloom or a low oxygen event but often those underlying issues – the fish are already struggling, already carrying this virus. The industry in Clayoquot Sound have said that it’s related to this plankton bloom, which it may be, but there could also be underlying health issues with the fish that’s leading them to die like that.
BF: In the current climate, how likely is it looking to fish farms will be removed from B.C. by 2025?
TC: It’s a good question. There was a very important – and I’d say hopeful – announcement made by the Liberal Party of Canada right before the election. They actually wrote in their platform that they would work to develop a responsible transition plan and aim to get open-net and fish farms out of the water by 2025. They came out and said that publicly and I think they gained a lot of votes from that. Now that they’re in power there’s rumours that they’re potentially not actually planning on following through with that promise, which obviously is pretty devastating. That’s our goal now is to keep the pressure up and hold them accountable. Because it really is to the point where our wild salmon are not coming back and we can’t keep messing around with this.
In 2019 the Fraser River sockeye, which is one of the most commercially important runs on the coast, one of the largest in B.C., suffered a 90% collapse. The DFO already expected there to be a low return but then only 10% of that already low forecasted return actually came back to the river. They haven’t moved elsewhere, because they only live so long, and they have to come back to the river to spawn. They’ve disappeared. Obviously, there’s a whole number of factors impacting them. It’s not just fish farms. There are changing ocean conditions due to climate change and there’s other habitat impacts that they experience. It’s death by a thousand cuts. But certainly, I think one of the most glaringly obvious impacts are these impacts from the viruses that are being released by the fish farming industry. It’s an impact that we can actually do something about. In the short term it’s hard to address changing ocean conditions in the North Pacific whereas we can actually stop putting this virus into our coastal waters. It’s one of a number impacts but it’s one that we can actually do something about.
BF: What action will you be taking in the coming months?
TC: Well in the coming months we’ll be working to make the Liberal Party keep their promise. And we need to need to develop a reasonable transition plan that also looks after the workers on these farms and helps them transition to growing fish on land. But that really is the only solution here. Even if the plant somehow starts filtering their effluent so there’s no virus being released ultimately that won’t really make a difference because all these farmed fish are still being grown in wild salmon habitat and 80% of all the fish grown on this coast by the fish farm industry are infected with this virus. That really is the only solution is to move onto land.
BF: Is the backlash against closed containment farms on land purely financial?
TC: Yes it’s purely financial. It’s cheaper for them to grow their farmed fish in the ocean because they’re able to externalise their costs onto the environment. When you have an open net-pen farm in the ocean you’re given the free water, the oxygen, the circulation and all your waste is removed automatically for you. It just disperses into the environment. You don’t have to deal with the waste. It’s the cheapest way of growing fish. It’s purely for economical reasons that they don’t want to move onto land. Their argument for many years has been that it’s not possible to do it on land economically. But that’s being proven otherwise because there’s a number of large closed containment facilities being built on the East Coast of the United States and that really is the future. We’re going to be growing fish in closed containment systems on land. The industry in British Columbia is trying to put that off for as long as they can because their profit margins are better if they can continue growing fish in the ocean. Their bottom line is making money for their shareholders. You know these aren’t even corporate companies that are that are based in Canada. Around 98% of the industry now operating in British Columbia is foreign owned. As terrible as it sounds, I don’t think they really care about the health of wild salmon on this coast – clearly they don’t, or else they wouldn’t keep operating in this way.
BF: What would be your advice to people around the world who want to help but aren’t on the front line.
TC: Well there’s a few things. Choosing to not eat farmed salmon and to not support this industry is important. Always ask whether the salmon you’re eating is farmed or wild. Make use of the amazing resources that are the Internet and social media to speak up, to have your say on this issue and connect with others through these campaigns.
BF: How long have you been a part of this fight for salmon?
TC: Begrudgingly, my whole life. It’s mainly due to the fact that I grew up on a small island in British Columbia where we were literally surrounded by open net-pen salmon farms and we had no option but to witness the impacts that these farms were having on our wild salmon. It really wasn’t something that I set out to do. It was just something that I felt I couldn’t ignore. I couldn’t not speak out about it. It’s been a number of years but I couldn’t not tell these stories.
To find out more about the movement to protect the fragile wild salmon stocks of Canada, head to the Wild First website.
To read the full paper outlining the impact of Piscine orthoreovirus on both Atlantic and Pacific salmon in British Columbia, click here.
To read more of Tavish’s work, read his piece ‘The fish that feed the forest’, which was featured in Issue 01 of Oceanographic Magazine.
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