Racing a salmon influenza virus

Wild salmon are dying in the rivers before they spawn, we are tracking European salmon viruses

If you had evidence that a European flu-like virus was seeping uncontrolled into the place you call home and government refused to do anything about it, while the industry involved was known to use the same strategic advisor as Exxon, the tobacco industry, China and the US government, could you sit quietly and just hope for the best?

The infectious salmon anemia virus, ISAV, is a branch of the influenza family that infects salmon.  It is spreading wherever Atlantic salmon are held in feedlots. There is no cure. Like other flu viruses, it does not bother to proof-read its mistakes, called mutations and that is how ISAV ends up growing fangs and claws when allowed to reproduce rapidly in feedlots. It caused $2 billion in damages when it jumped from Norway to Chile in farm salmon eggs.  

I used to track whales. In 1984, I followed a pod of whales into the remote archipelago between Kingcome and Knight Inlet 300 km north of Vancouver and I stayed.

When the first salmon pen appeared in 1987, the community of Echo Bay believed the government when they said this would be good for us.  I should have packed up and fled to the north.

The story of salmon feedlots in British Columbia is the tale of the Emperor with No Clothes, only much, much longer.  Salmon “farming” never made more jobs than were lost in the fisheries it displaced.  It can’t feed the world because it uses more fish than it makes, while burning fossil fuels the length of the globe to make this fruitless transaction.  It is one of those vertically integrated corporate schemes that seems to be wreaking havoc with local communities and ecosystems everywhere on earth.

When this industry displaced my fishermen neighbours, dropping their anchors in prime prawn, rock cod and salmon habitat, Echo Bay lost critical local economic activity.  We are on the same trajectory as Scotland, Ireland, eastern Canada, the wild salmon tipping into steep decline after the salmon feedlots showed up (Ford and Myers 2008).

Today, we are surrounded by 27 Norwegian-owned salmon feedlots and there are less than 10 people left in Echo Bay. And we don’t feel that the salmon feedlots were good for us.

In 1990, Jon Lilletun of the Norwegian Parliamentary Committee on Environment told Canada, “We are very strict about the quality and the environment questions.  Therefore, some of the fish farmers went to Canada.  They said we want bigger fish farms; we can do as we like.  That is a very hot subject, I think” (Hansard 12-9-1990).  Fisheries and Oceans Canada was warned by the industry’s home country.  


It’s simple.

Salmon are designed to keep moving, with predators constantly removing the sick, but in feedlots sick fish fester. A single farm can produce 650 billion infectious viral particles an hour (DFO testimony Cohen Commission). 

Avian flu taught us not to let wild birds touch the droppings of feedlot chickens, but salmon feedlots are pouring a blizzard of manure over the majority of British Columbia’s wild salmon as they migrate through the new marine industrial zones.  I see this as unacceptable high-risk management of a food resource and a feedlot influenza virus.

As the wild salmon of Echo Bay were fading away, the stench of rotting fish and drifting offal made it clear there were disease issues in the salmon feedlots. But I was not allowed to know the specifics.  So eight days before the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of the Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River opened its doors, 100 of us, First Nations, non-natives, fishermen, tourism operators, scientists and others got into canoes graciously lent to us by Ridge Wilderness Adventures and we paddled from Hope to Vancouver.

We wanted Justice Bruce Cohen to know how important release of the salmon feedlot disease records were to us. When we landed, we walked in a torrential downpour through Vancouver to the opening of the Commission and stood there with water pooling off of us in the courtroom until Justice Bruce Cohen acknowledged and then we left quietly – message received.


Cohen made history.

For the first time ever, salmon feedlots health reports became public. Thank you to all who participated and to the Nations who gave us shelter every night – it was worth it.  While the federal and provincial government and industry all testified under oath that ISA virus is not in British Columbia, the provincial vet was reporting “the classic lesions associated with ISA virus” in the farm salmon.

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