In her decision, which addressed two separate but related cases, Strickland gave the federal department four months to develop a new policy that considers the threat the virus (piscine reovirus, or PRV) poses to wild salmon and complies with the precautionary approach.
The two cases were brought by biologist Alexandra Morton and the ‘Namgis First Nation against the minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and two salmon farm companies.
“Getting a win on the PRV part is good news for us and really good news for wild salmon,” said ‘Namgis Chief Don Svanvik, who added that he and his legal team are still reviewing the extensive decision.
As for Morton, she said she felt validated when StarMetro reached her, about an hour after the decision came down.
Morton has launched two lawsuits related to the government’s policy on this virus and with this most recent decision, can say she has won both.
“This is a very significant victory for the health of wild salmon, for Alex, for coastal communities and for the species that rely on a healthy salmon population,” said Ecojustic lawyer Kegan Pepper-Smith, who represented Morton.
At the heart of the cases is the highly contagious virus, which has been shown to cause a sometimes fatal disease — heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, or HSMI — in farmed Atlantic salmon in Norway and other places.
The industry and the B.C. government have argued that the virus has not been proven to cause HSMI in B.C. and is not associated with elevated mortality at B.C. farms, though at least one study has diagnosed the disease based on lesions in the heart and skeletal muscles of salmon at a B.C. farm.
Morton and other groups concerned about the conservation of wild salmon meanwhile, says ocean-based fish farms are breeding grounds for the virus, which can then transfer to wild Pacific salmon populations swimming past.
While more research is needed to fully understand what risks PRV may pose to wild salmon, a recent study co-authored by a Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist found the virus is associated with jaundice or anemia in farmed Chinook salmon.
What that could mean for wild Chinook salmon is of particular concern because they are the main food source of the critically endangered southern resident killer whales and some southern B.C. populations of the salmon are already considered at risk of being wiped out.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently reviewing the court’s decision, according to statement from Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson that was provided to StarMetro by his press secretary.
“Our government understands that a strong, science-based approach to regulating the aquaculture industry is essential and that is why we have and will continue to conduct extensive research which informs our policies and regulations,” Wilkinson said in the statement.
He added that the federal government is working with B.C. to “help restore and protect wild Pacific salmon.”
The BC Salmon Farmers Association is also reviewing the court’s decision, according to spokesperson Shawn Hall.
Hall added that the association is looking forward to the seeing the outcome of the Canadian Scientific Advisory Secretariat’s PRV risk assessment that is currently underway.
“Supporting good science into the health of both wild and farm-raised salmon and working closely with First Nations and coastal communities are cornerstones of responsible salmon farming in B.C.,” he said.
In her ruling, Strickland wrote the DFO’s current threshold of acceptable potential harm to B.C.’s wild salmon is too high.
That threshold “essentially permits any transfer of fish having a disease or a disease agent, unless the transfer places genetic diversity, species or conservation units of fish at risk,” she wrote.
In short, the ministry would only halt a fish transfer if it put the entire population and genetic diversity of wild salmon at risk.
“This is not consistent with the Wild Salmon Policy definition of conservation, and it is unreasonable,” said Strickland.
Pepper-Smith said it’s now a matter of waiting to see what the minister does in response to the court’s decision.
As far as Morton’s concerned, she wants to see the federal department screen all farmed salmon for PRV and prohibit the transfer of infected fish into farms.
It’s unclear at this stage what implications the court’s decision will have for the B.C. industry, which has been consistently ranked the world’s fourth-largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon. In 2016, $757.5 million worth of farmed salmon was harvested in B.C. making it the province’s biggest agri-food export.
Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter covering courts, wildlife conservation and new technology. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii
Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank