A DFO biologist at a fish farm in the Okisollo Channel, northeast of Quadra Island, on Oct. 31, 2018. File photo

Dissenter from group of scientific experts calls foul on DFO, says effects of fish farm virus ‘extremely uncertain’

Too much unknown about PRV’s effects on wild stocks, says John Werring

A member of a group of experts looking into the effects of piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) for the federal government is taking issue with claims that the pathogen poses a “minimal risk” to Fraser River sockeye.

On Thursday, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) said participants in an expert peer-review process – who are providing the federal department with advice on the virus – had “reached a consensus that the risk to Fraser River sockeye salmon due to PRV is minimal.”

But participant John Werring – who is also part of the steering committee for the peer-review process – says that no such consensus exists.

Too much uncertainty remains about PRV, according to Werring, a senior science and policy adviser with the David Suzuki Foundation.

“The uncertainty is extremely high, and there’s no possible way that we can make any conclusion about the impacts of this pathogen on wild salmon in British Columbia,” Werring said in an interview on Friday. “I don’t think there’s a scientist out there that would argue otherwise.”

READ MORE: Virus found among Atlantic salmon ‘poses minimal risk’ to Fraser River sockeye – DFO

Peer review co-chair Gilles Olivier, a former senior official with DFO who is now retired, told reporters on Thursday that a strain of PRV found in B.C. waters is less harmful to Atlantic salmon than one found in Norway, where it originates.

But Werring disputes the claim that PRV isn’t a risk to sockeye.

“They’re uncertain about how long the virus lives, they’re uncertain about how far it spreads, and they’re uncertain about the impact of PRV on other species of salmon,” said Werring, a registered professional biologist with a master’s of science in animal resource ecology.

Claims by DFO about a low risk to sockeye salmon also imply that the virus doesn’t affect wild salmon at all, which isn’t the case, Werring said.

“This is a very narrowly focused, narrowly mandated study,” he added.

Aside from research showing that PRV causes mortality in chinook salmon, he said that unpublished evidence viewed by the peer-review group also points to risks for wild coho and chum salmon.

READ MORE: Alexandra Morton, ‘Namgis First Nation win Federal Court ruling

The peer-review study was restricted to PRV that spreads from fish farms in the Discovery Islands.

“Moving north through the Discovery Islands into the Johnstone Strait and the Queen Charlotte Strait, they’re exposed to 20, 30 other fish farms,” he said. “And that’s not taken into consideration.”

He noted that an email sent out on Wednesday night by Jay Parsons, director of DFO’s Aquaculture, Biotechnology and Aquatic Animal Health Sciences Branch, asked peer-review participants to stick to “agreed-on summary bullets” if approached by the media.

“These summary bullets were not shared with participants prior to the decision to release them, so they were not ‘agreed-on,’” said Werring in an email to the Mirror.

“Had we had the opportunity to review them in advance, it may very well be that we (participants) would have asked for amendments on the overall message. But we were not given that opportunity.”

DFO hasn’t completely ignored uncertainties about PRV science.

A statement from DFO on Thursday acknowledged “there are still some knowledge gaps in our understanding of this virus” and peer-review co-chair Craig Stephen said during the teleconference that a high degree of uncertainty remains about PRV.

READ MORE: Cermaq says experimental ‘closed-containment’ fish farm coming to Canadian waters

The mixed messages from the peer-review group come on the heels of a major legal decision on PRV and the salmon farming industry.

On Monday, the Federal Court of Canada overturned a policy allowing young salmon to be transferred into ocean-based fish farms without first being screened for the virus. This followed lawsuits by ‘Namgis First Nation and by biologist Alexandra Morton, an outspoken critic of open-net fish farms.

Justice Cecily Strickland found that DFO’s threshold for acceptable harm to wild salmon was too high and that its policy didn’t comply with the precautionary principle. The court also found that DFO breached its duty to consult ‘Namgis First Nation about PRV. Strickland gave the federal government four months to review the policy.

DFO declined to comment about its plans during Thursday’s conference call.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

A previous version of this article quoted John Werring as saying “there’s no possible way that we can make any conclusion about the impacts of this pathogen on wild salmon in British Columbia…. I don’t think there’s a scientist out there that would argue otherwise, except for DFO.” The words “except for DFO” have been removed because they didn’t capture Werring’s intent.

Just Posted

Historian happily surprised about Morden Mine funding

What took so long for support for restoration work, asks columnist

Lantzville looking to ban beach fires as youths aren’t respecting beaches

Lantzville the only municipality south of Comox Valley that allows beach fires, district staff say

NDSS 50th reunion planned this spring

Organizing committee looking to reach Nanaimo grads from the Class of 1969

VIDEO: Duncan-Nanaimo’s Funkanometry bow out of ‘World of Dance’ with ‘After Hours’ routine

Judges praised them as entertainers, and urged them to work a bit more on their dancing

VIDEO: Next up on World of Dance: Vancouver Island’s Funkanometry faces ‘the cut’

Duncan’s Carlow Rush and Nanaimo’s Jacksun Fryer have passed the qualifying stage chasing $1 million

What’s age got to do with it? B.C. couple with 45-year gap talks happy marriage

An Armstrong couple that has 45-year age gap began turning heads after being featured on show Extreme Love.

Upgrades planned for Gabriola ferry terminal

Plans call for new loading ramp, creation of a vehicle holding area and new terminal building

Earth Day in Nanaimo celebrates the Earth and its inhabitants

Plant a tree, pet a wolf, and see grand opening of Georgia Greenway at Nanaimo Earth Day festival

City of Nanaimo ‘100 per cent’ on board with privacy commissioner recommendations

Council satisfied with how private and confidential information will be handled moving forward

Editorial: Climate change is a good reason to cast a vote

Different choices around climate action and inaction will be on the ballot in Nanaimo-Ladysmith

WATCH: South Vancouver Island shooting an ‘isolated and targeted’ incident, say police

One person in custody, another fled following shooting and crash on West Shore

Defence accuses officer of ‘incompetence’ in trial for B.C. man accused in daughters’ murder

Double murder trial for the Victoria father accused of killing his two young daughters continues

Fisheries and oceans minister spends Earth Day in Nanaimo-Ladysmith

Jonathan Wilkinson in riding to support candidate Michelle Corfield

Climate action can’t be a partisan issue, say Greens

Green Party of Canada celebrated Earth Day early in Nanaimo

Most Read