New disease threat to wild salmon was predictable and preventable

The discovery of two Rivers Inlet sockeye salmon smolts infected with deadly ISA (infectious salmon anemia) is dreadful news for BC’s wild stocks, not just because this disease has caused devastation elsewhere, but also because its arrival here was predictable and preventable.

As the editor of The Fisherman, the publication of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers, I did extensive coverage during the 1980s about the disease risk posed by farmed salmon, particularly non-native stocks like Atlantic salmon.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Owikeno watershed, the vast wilderness nursery in the central coast — now dubbed the Great Bear Rainforest — where the Rivers Inlet runs spawned.

Rivers Inlet became a testbed for theories, now discredited, that suggested absolute fishing closures would produce bigger spawning populations and much larger runs. In fact, the opposite occurred in Rivers Inlet and elsewhere.

But time and money were found to capture and rear chinook and coho from this and other watersheds for use by the burgeoning salmon farming industry. (The “collapse” of wild stocks was a key factor in opening markets to farmed salmon.)

When both species proved difficult and costly to domesticate, BC farmers were permitted to import Norwegian Atlantic salmon, which were already accustomed to fish pen life and pellet food. These imports undoubtedly brought ISA with them.

Farmed salmon stocks hit by disease die in droves — ISA nearly wiped out the industry in Chile, which had no wild salmon — but the pens are soon replenished. No one can replace eradicated wild stocks.

That’s the threat we see before us now, a threat that could have been eliminated by the simple expedient of making protection of our wild salmon a provincial and national priority.