Integrity of the DFO’s science advisory process in question

Apparent conflicts of interest between Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s science advisory process must be resolved to save endangered wild salmon stocks.

Does Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFOs) science advisory process have integrity when tasked with answering questions on salmon farming? If there is any hope of changing the trajectory of many iconic but endangered wild salmon stocks, there must be a resolution to political and industrial interference that continues to influence fisheries science advice at the federal level.

Since 2001, a scientific debate has been active in British Columbia around parasitic salmon lice from open-net salmon farms and their impacts on wild fish. Two “camps” of scientific opinion have been obvious. On one side, academics and NGO scientists have published articles in peer-reviewed journals detailing the negative effects parasites from salmon farms can have on migrating wild salmon. On the other, government and industry-supported scientists have published papers that cast doubt on these conclusions, thereby fuelling the debate and encouraging the continued operation of salmon farms on wild fish migration routes.

It is well established that manufacturing a scientific debate on the impacts of smoking and climate change benefits tobacco and petroleum companies. Some believe the salmon-farming debate is not very different.

The DFO is the regulator of the salmon-farming industry, but it also promotes the industry and their products. These dual roles were identified by the 2012 federal Cohen Commission on the decline of BC salmon stocks as a potential conflict of interest that may impede DFO’s ability to protect wild fish stocks. Justice Cohen recommended that the federal government remove industry promotion from DFO. An expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada reached a similar conclusion — that DFO’s conservation of biodiversity may be impeded by its relationship with industry. More recently, DFO scientist Kristi Miller broke ranks and testified to a parliamentary committee, raising concern the agency’s science may be influenced by the industry. Despite this, and a commitment by the prime minister to implement all of Justice Cohen’s recommendations, no known action has been taken to remove the salmon-farming promotional mandate from DFO.

Meanwhile, the salmon-farming debate continues. Evidence uncovered by the Cohen Commission rekindled the feud around the impacts of the industry. The subject this time: viruses.

DFO’s scientific stance seems to diminish the relevance of a particularly worrisome virus — piscine reovirus (known as PRV) — as a risk to wild salmon. As in the salmon lice debate, DFO appears to favour Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods (SCAMs). Environmental sociologist William Freudenburg, who coined the term SCAMs and studied their use in the climate change debate, wrote:

Given that most scientific findings are inherently probabilistic and ambiguous, if agencies can be prevented from imposing any regulations until they are unambiguously “justified,” most regulations can be defeated or postponed, often for decades, allowing profitable but potentially risky activities to continue unabated.

Within the context of SCAMs, we can compare three conclusions from DFO’s 2015 CSASreport on PRV with more recent published conclusions from academics, NGO scientists and Kristi Miller’s lab.

2015 DFO conclusion 1: “There is no evidence from laboratory studies in British Columbia and Washington State that PRV infection is associated with any disease state, including HSMI [heart and skeletal muscle inflammation]”
Wessel et al. 2017: PRV can cause heart and skeletal muscle inflammation
– 2015 DFO conclusion 2: “HSMI has not been reported on BC salmon farms”
Kristy Miller’s lab 2017: HSMI was reported on BC salmon farms in 2017
– 2015 DFO conclusion 3: The information suggests “a low likelihood that the presence of this virus in any life stage of farmed Atlantic and Pacific Salmon would have a significant impact on wild Pacific Salmon populations.”
Morton et al. 2017 Salmon farms may spread PRV to wild salmon and impede their ability to migrate upstream and spawn.

Mirroring the salmon lice debate, DFO’s PRV conclusions appear to exploit the uncertainty around the evidence and steer away from exercising precautionary action to protect wild fish. The 2015 DFO report ends with unsubstantiated platitudes about BC’s “robust” disease surveillance program that purportedly minimizes the threat of diseases spreading from farms to wild fish. It appears DFO’s premier peer-review science advisory process, CSAS, produced premature conclusions that coincidently aligned with industry conclusions, but that are now in question. This raises the question: Is the salmon-farming industry influencing DFO’s CSAS?

to continue reading this article online, click here

by Stan Proboszcz