Media Release: Feds Skip Key Research in Discovery Islands Fish Farm Decision 

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) omitted analysis of parasitic sea lice and other key science from its assessments of the risks open-net salmon farms pose to wild salmon, according to science-based advocacy group, Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

Today, DFO announced their decision not to remove fish farms from the Discovery Islands just before the September 30, 2020 deadline laid out by the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River. The Cohen Commission’s 19th recommendation states that salmon farming in the Discovery Islands should be prohibited unless the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada is“satisfied that such farms pose at most a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon.”

“DFO previously stated they would evaluate the risk of 10 pathogens from salmon farms, and then produce a synthesis report that evaluated the combined risk of all 10 pathogens,” says Stan Proboszcz, Watershed Watch Salmon Society science advisor and past steering committee member of  five of the nine DFO risk assessments. “Knowing what we do about the impacts of farm lice on wild salmon, and the inability of the farms to control their lice, it’s incomprehensible they would leave sea lice out of their assessments. And by skipping the synthesis report, they are only looking at each of the risks in isolation and ignoring the combined effect.”

Various peer-reviewed studies show parasitic lice levels on juvenile sockeye are elevated after migrating past salmon farms and that lice impede juvenile sockeye feeding and growth. Another study published this month showed the salmon farming industry is under-reporting lice infestations on their farms when not being actively audited by DFO.

Of the nine pathogens from fish farms that DFO conducted risk assessments for, all are reported to have “minimal risk” to wild salmon. However, DFO’s science review process for this series of risk assessments includes many industry-linked scientists, and Watershed Watch and others have previously raised concerns about the potential pro-industry bias of their conclusions.

“It is important to note, many of these conclusions of minimal risk have high levels of uncertainty associated with them,” says Proboszcz. “For example, the risk assessments for both Piscine Reovirus and Renibacterium salmonarum, the cause of Bacterial Kidney Disease, concluded these pathogens pose minimal risk to wild salmon. However the level of confidence linked to each conclusion in DFO’s report ranges from high certainty to high uncertainty.”

“The uncertainty in DFO’s conclusions of minimal risk, the lack of a risk assessment focused on sea lice and the lack of a cumulative risk assessment (that adds up the individual risks of all the pathogens) clearly show DFO did not fulfill this recommendation from Justice Cohen, despite having eight years to do so.”

“It’s a dark day in Canadian science history when DFO uses incomplete and subjective risk assessments riddled with uncertainty in an attempt to defend the open-net salmon farming industry.”


Stan Proboszcz, Science Advisor, Watershed Watch Salmon Society




The Cohen Commission, an investigation into the decline of Fraser Sockeye salmon, put the burden of proof squarely on DFO to show that salmon farms in the Discovery Islands are of minimal risk to wild salmon. Otherwise, Cohen recommended the farms be removed.  

Cohen Recommendation #19 and supporting statement from Volume 3, pages 25-26:

“On September 30, 2020, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans should prohibit net-pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands (fish health sub-zone 3-2) unless he or she is satisfied that such farms pose at most a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon. The Minister’s decision should summarize the information relied on and include detailed reasons. The decision should be published on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ website.”

“…I have chosen September 30, 2020, as the date by which DFO should be able to assess, adequately, the likelihood of net-pen salmon farms causing serious harm to Fraser River sockeye. If, by that date, DFO cannot confidently say the risk of serious harmful is minimal, it should prohibit all net-pen salmon farms from operating in the Discovery Islands.”


References to DFO’s original plan to conduct 10 risk assessments:

“A plan has been developed to deliver the remaining nine (1st was completed in 2017) individual peer-reviewed disease risk assessments, as well as a peer-reviewed risk assessment of the synthesis of the risk to Fraser River Sockeye salmon from pathogens that have caused disease on Atlantic Salmon farms in the Discovery Islands, prior to September 2020.”

“For example, on September 25, 2018, DFO announced a new science review to assess the risks of piscine reovirus (PRV) transfer from Atlantic salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area to Fraser River sockeye. The review will include domestic and international scientific experts from government, academia, Indigenous communities, ENGOs, and industry. The report will be reviewed by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat in early 2019, and the final report will be made publically available following this review. This is 1 of 10 risk assessments being undertaken by DFO to understand the risk of pathogen transfer associated with aquaculture activities in the Discovery Islands.”

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