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Editorial: It’s infectious

An open-pen salmon farm on Digby Neck
An open-pen salmon farm on Digby Neck - file photo

Aquaculture businesses — and provincial governments — are probably hoping it’s a disease that doesn’t spread.

In late November, a pathogenic variety of infectious salmon anemia was found in a Newfoundland fish farming operation. It’s not all that unusual: the Canadian Food Inspection Agency lists case of infectious salmon disease online, and since January of last year has identified three such cases in Newfoundland and Labrador, 11 cases in New Brunswick, and one in Nova Scotia. There were 14 cases where the disease was found in 2016 in the Atlantic provinces, and 12 in 2015.

But that’s not the disease the aquaculture industry is probably watching with the most interest.

No, they’re probably more interested in the spread of infectious legislative public opinionata.

That’s on the rise in Washington State right now, where, following the collapse of a New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture sea cage system in Puget Sound, legislators on both sides of the political spectrum are putting forward proposed legislation to stop Atlantic salmon aquaculture. Republicans are more bullish on making new rules than the Democrat version; the Republican version wants to cancel aquaculture licences on an emergency basis as soon as the legislation passes. The Democrats are arguing for a phase-out of existing licences.

The legislators say they’re only trying to protect native salmon species. After the Cooke salmon pen failure spilled 160,000 Atlantic salmon into the Pacific, the fish have turned up in Washington State rivers as far as 80 kilometres from the ocean.

Republican Jim Walsh, in a CBC News story, had an apt example of why the aquaculture projects need to be stopped.

“Our native stocks are like a person whose immune system is already compromised,” Walsh said. “And the introduction of the non-native species into our public waters is like a cold. … Where to a healthy person the cold would be just a nuisance, to a person with a compromised immune system a cold can be fatal.”

Signs of that cold are clear on the East Coast of Canada as well.

A genetic study on salmon in rivers in Newfoundland after a major fish pen failure showed that, in many rivers, as much as 35 per cent of the current salmon stock is hybrid fish, with the report pointing out that, “The long-term consequences of continued farmed salmon escapes and subsequent interbreeding with wild Atlantic salmon include a loss of genetic diversity.”

In other words, in addition to the current and regular cases of infectious salmon anemia (something that also threatens wild fish), wild salmon populations in the Atlantic provinces are facing the very same “cold” that Washington State legislators are trying to deal with.

Salmon aquaculture is popular with Atlantic governments looking to find new sources of rural employment; the question now is whether they can continue to escape the common infection of public opinion.

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