British Columbia

DFO to begin testing for harmful virus at B.C. fish farms

Testing for strains of a virus that is harmful to farmed Atlantic salmon in Norway will soon begin at B.C. fish farm operations, the federal fisheries minister announced Tuesday.

Activists say it's been a '6-year battle' to get testing done

Aquatic science biologist Shawn Stenhouse writes down results during a Fisheries and Oceans Canada fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C., in October 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Testing for strains of a virus that is harmful to farmed Atlantic salmon in Norway will soon begin at B.C. fish farm operations, the federal fisheries minister announced Tuesday.

Jonathan Wilkinson said screening for Icelandic and Norwegian strains of piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV, at B.C. aquaculture sites is part of a proposed risk-management policy that aims to protect wild salmon and the health of farmed fish.

Environmental, industry and Indigenous groups have 60 days to provide feedback during a consultation process before the government announces an enhanced federal aquaculture policy within four to six months, he said.

"My view is this is a path forward where we take into account concerns and we address them in thoughtful and substantive ways,'' Wilkinson said. "I think it's important that we do that because British Columbians want to be sure we are effectively protecting their environment and protecting wild salmon.''

Vancouver Island aquaculture activist Alexandra Morton has long called for virus tests on farmed salmon transferred to open net pens near wild salmon spawning routes.

"This has been a six-year battle and so it is very unexpected to see a fisheries minister take such a bold and unprecedented step,'' said Morton, a biologist, in a statement.

"However, I know the devil lies in the detail and I am waiting to see who is going to do the testing and what is the protocol when they find the virus.''

A farmed Atlantic salmon in B.C. The federal government says screening for Icelandic and Norwegian strains of piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV, at B.C. aquaculture sites is part of a proposed risk management policy that aims to protect wild salmon and the health of farmed fish. (THE CANADIAN PRESS /Jonathan Hayward)

In February, a federal court judge gave Fisheries and Oceans Canada four months to revise its policy that didn't require farmed Atlantic salmon to be tested for the virus.

"What we need to do is assure people they can have comfort the environment is being protected,'' said Wilkinson, adding the goal is to address concerns about salmon health while enabling the aquaculture industry to grow.

Two recent studies by a fisheries department scientist found PRV does not have the same harmful affect on Atlantic salmon farmed in Pacific waters at it does in Norway.

Fisheries officials also said in February that data shows PRV poses minimal risks to wild sockeye salmon stocks in B.C.'s Fraser River.

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