Footage of bloody discharge being released into B.C.’s coastal waters from farmed-fish processing plants by photographer Tavish Campbell has made international headlines and prompted the promise of further investigation from both provincial and federal governments.
But critics say that while governments are eager to stem a wave of concerns arising from the footage, not enough is being done to protect B.C.’s threatened wild salmon populations from the threats of the farmed-salmon industry that stem from the use of open net pens.
In addition to the footage, Campbell collected samples of the discharge that laboratory testing found contained Piscene Reovirus, a disease carried in an estimated 80 per cent of Atlantic farmed salmon on the B.C. coast. The virus is linked to the presence of heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, a deadly condition found in B.C. wild salmon stocks.
B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said the ministry dispatched inspectors to the Brown’s Bay processing plant near Campbell River to determine the contents of the effluent being released and take further samples if necessary.
“I think the bottom line for us is we want to make sure anything being dumped into our oceans is free of contaminants, fee of pathogens and not a threat to wild salmon,” Heyman told DeSmog Canada in an interview.
The Brown’s Bay processing plant received a discharge permit from the B.C. government in 1989, granting the company permission to release 28,000 litres of effluent every day. There are 109 fish processing plants in B.C.; if they are all releasing roughly the same as the Brown’s Bay plant, that’s ten Olympic swimming pools of effluent being released into B.C. waters daily.
The Brown’s Bay plant was inspected in 2013, and found to be out of compliance with the province’s environmental laws. According to Heyman no further inspection took place at the time.
The permit, which Heyman said does not reflect modern conditions and standards, is currently under review. He added there are older permits for additional fish processing plants the government will also place under review.
“We are looking at conditions that reflect today’s reality and today’s expectation and that’s that what is dumped in the ocean is clean and not a threat to wild salmon,” Heyman said. “So we’ll be looking at it from that perspective as well as from First Nations who are being consulted we’ll look at best practices around the world around discharges into the ocean.”
Bloodwater Not Only Threat Wild Salmon Face
Campbell said that while a review of B.C.’s out-of-date permits is warranted, the release of contaminated effluent is just one threat the farmed-salmon industry poses to wild salmon stocks.
“The bloodwater is certainly a point source for infection but if we get rid of the bloodwater the problem doesn’t go away because ultimately these juvenile wild fish are still swimming past the open net pens and picking up these viruses and diseases,” Campbell told DeSmog Canada.
Aaron Hill, ecologist and wild salmon policy analyst for the Watershed Wild Salmon Society, agreed.
“It’s really hard to quantify exactly where this wastewater discharge lands on the threat matrix but we know that salmon farms host a number of viruses and parasites that are transmitted to wild fish and harm wild fish,” Hill told DeSmog Canada.
“Many of our salmon populations are in really bad shape due to a number of factors,” Hill said, saying climate change is considered the number one threat to wild salmon.
“We can’t flip a switch and make the oceans more productive or make rivers cooler and safer for fish. But we can get these farms out of the ocean and onto land. We can stop bloody diseased waste from being piped into the water.”
Many of the companies operating farmed salmon open net pens in B.C. are Norwegian, the country behind many of the farmed salmon operations worldwide. Currently Norway does not allow for the discharge of fish processing waste into the ocean.
B.C.'s Environmental Monitoring and Enforcement Weak: Furstenau
British Columbia has a poor record of monitoring and enforcing its own environmental laws due to staff and budget cuts, according to Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau.
“While I appreciate the Minister of Environment's immediate response to the videos, we need a government that works to proactively protect our environment, not one that waits for the public to prove that we've got a problem,” Furstenau said during Wednesday’s question period in the house.
“Is the minister going to expand his review to cover every plant that releases effluent into wild salmon habitat to ensure it's not contaminated, or will Mr. Campbell need to keep testing the blood water?”
The B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations is responsible for leases and tenures for fish farms. Ocean discharge permits are managed by the province’s environment ministry.
However, regulation and promotion of the aquaculture industry falls to federal jurisdiction under the Fisheries Act.
Heyman said his ministry has been in contact with Environment Canada as well as local First Nations to discuss the effluent permits and Campbell’s footage.
“It’s important that all parties with jurisdiction take a unified approach to protecting wild salmon. That’s our expectation and we hope the federal government will join us and work with us and First Nations to protect wild salmon.”
Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said his ministry is also investigating the results of recent samples taken from the discharge pipes — and is open to potential changes under the Fisheries Act that would prevent the release of contaminants that could further threaten B.C.’s struggling wild salmon populations.
Campbell said he doesn’t see a way for open net fish farms and healthy wild salmon stocks to coexist. He hopes recent outrage over the outfall pipes will add to growing calls to move the aquaculture industry on land.
“I think the writing is on the wall for this industry. They can’t keep continuing to operate in the way they have been with open net pens in the water,” Campbell said.
“There’s too much opposition to it and there’s too much science saying if that’s going to happen we’re basically sacrificing our wild stocks.”
Image: Tavish Campell near the Brown's Bay effluent discharge pipe. Photo: Tavish Campbell