VANCOUVER—Ottawa has been granted four more months to come up with a new policy to test B.C. fish farms for a virus that some experts say is killing wild salmon.
The B.C. scientist and First Nation who have been fighting for years in court for better protections against the highly contagious virus say they are “disappointed” with the so-called delay tactic.
Marine biologist Alex Morton, the ‘Namgis First Nation and environmental groups say fish farms are “viral factories” for a highly contagious pathogen, Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), that is putting wild salmon at risk.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, often called the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or DFO, allows farms to transfer salmon from land-based hatcheries to ocean pens without testing for the virus.
In February, a federal court judge sided with Morton and the ‘Namgis, striking down the government’s no-testing policy. The court gave DFO until June 4, 2019 to come up with a new approach.
The agreement also comes with conditions outlying how the government will consult with the ‘Namgis. The details of the agreement are not public but the ‘Namgis lawyer, Sean Jones, said the agreement reflects his client’s demands listed in their written response to the government’s initial request for an extension.
Those demands include, a commitment by DFO that it will conduct a risk assessment of how PRV affects all five wild salmon species that frequent ‘Namgis territory and that DFO hold a series of meetings with ‘Namgis representatives.
It was Ottawa that initially asked for a one-month extension. The ‘Namgis said it would take four months for the government to consult the First Nation properly.
Jones told the court Monday that the government, to date, has not engaged in meaningful consultation with the ‘Namgis, despite a federal court judge ordering the government to do just that in February.
Crown counsel Timothy Timberg told the court that Fisheries and Oceans staff needed more time to fulfil the court order due to an “administrative error,” and because an overarching review of fish farm policy by DFO staff was taking longer than expected.
Alex Morton, the scientist who has fought the federal government twice in court — and won — over the PRV issue shook her head as she listened in the Vancouver courtroom.
“It’s avoidance behaviour,” she said.
The extension would allow fish farm companies to release millions more untested fish into open-ocean net pens in B.C. waters, she said, after the proceedings were over.
In her February decision, Justice Cecily Strickland ruled the government had failed to do enough to protect B.C.’s wild salmon in light of its policy on PRV, a virus that is commonly found in fish farms.
The federal government now has until October 2019 to come up with a new PRV policy.
Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter covering courts, wildlife conservation and new technology. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii