Two wild Chinook salmon swim in crystal clear water.

Photo Credit: Morgan Bond / IntraFish

DFO Flounders Again on Fish Farm File

But the federal government chose to sit on it for 10 years

Research by DFO scientists showed that fish farms were infecting farmed and wild salmon with a deadly virus

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is an organization in crisis. Just like our wild salmon.

Last week, the Globe and Mail published a report about how factory fish farms were infecting farmed and wild salmon with the Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV). The highly contagious disease came from Norway and spread through factory fish farms off the BC coast. In wild Chinook, the virus causes blood cells to rupture, which causes kidney and liver damage.

The report proves that DFO knew about this as far back as 2012. DFOs own scientists figured it out. But DFO management chose to hide the news.

Both the Harper and Trudeau governments knew that fish farms were spreading this virus. Yet, neither of them did anything. Instead, they told DFO scientists to keep quiet.

Back in 2012, DFO biologist Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders led a team of researchers who found the virus circulating between farmed and wild salmon. Last year, scientists at the University of British Columbia confirmed Miller-Saunders’ work.

But the only reason we know about any of this is because Wild First, a local environmental group, fought a legal battle to get access to the information. A federal information commissioner ordered the release of the 10-year-old report.

The DFO scientist that authored the concealed report called the delay a “travesty.” Miller-Saunders said it fuelled doubt that farmed salmon were infecting wild salmon with this damaging virus. That made it easier for fish farms to keep operating, even though they spread disease.

Alexandra Morton is an independent biologist who has studied the impacts of fish farming on wild salmon for three decades. She says the report shows that DFO management chose corporate interests over the advice of its own scientists.

Morton pointed out the issue in an interview with the Guardian last year. “There are scientists that genuinely care about investigating these issues,” she said. “And there is the middle level of the department that is suppressing people like Dr. Miller.”

“The news that DFO staff hid findings that PRV is a ‘disease agent’ not only led to the coast-wide spread of this Norwegian virus, but they also pushed aside the laws of Canada,” Morton wrote in a recent Facebook post.

This is not the first time critics have called out DFO‘s conflicting mandates. How can one organization support wild salmon and fish farms at the same time?

In 2012, Justice Bruce Cohen led an inquiry into the decline of Fraser River Sockeye. His report included 75 recommendations to fix the dysfunctional DFO. At the time, he said that the feds should transfer the management of fish farms to a different department to solve this conflict of interest.

But here we are, a decade later, and DFO is as dysfunctional as ever. It keeps hiding science that would make things harder for its corporate interests—even when that science comes from inside the DFO.

It’s like an organization with a split personality—one that aims to protect our threatened Pacific wild salmon, and one that promotes fish farming.

As Dr. Miller-Saunders’ concealed report shows, having both under the same roof isn’t working.