B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman says the province is investigating claims fish processing plants are releasing contaminated effluent into the ocean.
The claims come from a B.C. photographer who says he has found evidence from two plants — one near Campbell River and the other near Tofino — that show effluent contaminated with piscine reovirus is being released into the ocean.
Photographer Tavish Campbell says he documented the release of so-called "blood water" in photos and video during four dives this past year.
He says samples he took of the effluent, that were then tested by the Atlantic Veterinary College, confirmed the presence of the virus.
Province to send inspector
"I've become aware of this issue very recently," said Heyman, who described the video as "very graphic."
"We began investigating it and also checking about the lab tests that have been performed on some of the effluent."
The minister says one of the plants in question — at Brown's Bay near Campbell River — hasn't been inspected since 2013 and is operating under permits granted some 30 years ago.
He is hoping to have an inspector on site there to do a review as soon as possible, and, if necessary, the province will conduct its own tests.
"We are going to ensure, as we review the permit and put conditions on the permit, if necessary, that any discharge into the water is safe and will not contaminate wild salmon," Heyman said.
"British Columbians really expect us to keep our water safe and to protect wild salmon and that's our intent."
A statement from the federal Environment Ministry says its officials are also aware of the video and are looking into the situation, as is the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans.
Company says effluent disinfected
In a statement, Brown's Bay Packing Company says it disinfects effluent before it is released into the marine environment.
"While the liquid discharged remains red in colour, the treatment process is designed specifically to treat for fish pathogens," the company said in the statement.
It adds that the standards it operates under are designed based on the Norwegian model, "which has been determined to be effective in inactivating fish virus."
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association backs up the company.
Executive director Jeremy Dunn says there is no way to be sure that the piscine reovirus found in the lab results came from the effluent.
"Their sample was taken at depth in the ocean and we know PRV (piscene reovirus) to be present in the ocean in both farmed and wild fish. I'm not disputing that they got a positive for PRV, I don't know if that PRV came from the ocean water or from the discharge from the plant," Dunn said.
The photographer who documented the effluent release says he did the first dive in April at Brown's Bay.
He says he wanted to see if there was a potential for viruses to be spread from farmed salmon to wild fish.
"The first time it was just me and my friend Steve. We live in the area. We've grown up there. We have a genuine, you know, care and concern for our wild salmon," Campbell said.
He says he conducted the dive at a time when the plant was actively processing fish.
"What we found was pretty shocking, you know. It was pretty horrific to see this much blood water being pumped out."
Campbell then did three more dives — in June back at Brown's Bay and in October and November off the coast of Tofino.
The evidence is clear that piscine reovirus is present on B.C. fish farms, but there have been debates over whether it can cause a deadly salmon disease called Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI).
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Heyman says the province is working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and First Nations in the area to ensure everything possible is being done to protect wild salmon.