Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Oceans Update Winter 2018

Letter from Executive Director Karen Wristen,

We are so living in interesting times! First off, I want to thank Alberta’s premier for inspiring me to investigate more B.C. VQA wines. I’ll share a personal favourite:  Tinhorn Creek’s Cabernet Franc.  That’s my better half picking up a bottle at the Bowen Beer and Wine Cellar last week.

Alberta’s trade war sparked some light-hearted moments on social media this month; and the B.C. government gave us a few more when its own investigation of fish plant effluent caught the industry in an outright lie about disinfected effluent.

In this Oceans Update, we explore what’s really behind the pipeline posturing by Alberta and Canada; and take a look at salmon farms in the cross-hairs both here and south of the border. We also report on the launch of a whole new chapter in sustainable seafood advocacy.

I hope you’ll raise a glass and enjoy reading…

Pipelines and Science

Living Oceans has been participating in B.C.’s policy development process for oil spill response since it began under the Christy Clark government and the recent provincial announcement that the process will move on to its next phase should not have caused so much as a raised eyebrow. Well, maybe the part about restricting tarsands shipments until the science is done seemed new—but only if you had never read the fine print from the National Energy Board’s recommendations for both Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipelines.

Both NEB reports recommended a condition requiring the companies to conduct further study into how spilled dilbit behaves.They were supposed to set up science panels and do the research and file it; they were supposed to prove they could respond effectively to spills in both fresh and marine environments.

What has happened since? No publicly reported science, certainly; and nothing indicates that the research questions posed by North America’s two blue-ribbon academic institutions are being addressed. Both the Royal Society of Canada and the U.S. National Academy of Science have called for more research and underlined the fact that neither Canada nor the U.S. appears to have effective regulatory tools in place to manage the transportation of dilbit.

In fact, the only clear development since the approval of these pipelines has been a massive investment by Kinder Morgan in new oil spill response centres, all equipped with the same conventional spill response equipment that is completely ineffective for submerged or sinking oils. When Executive Director Karen Wristen toured Western Canada Marine Response Corporation’s facilities last year, the company displayed the equipment available and admitted they have none, either in stock or on order, that could deal with tracking and responding to a spill once it is no longer floating.

 The ugly responses from Alberta and Canada to B.C.’s announcement that it wants to see the science come first are really a window into how dubious the financing for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline must be: so dubious that both governments resorted to blackmail in defense of the project. We figure Rachel Notley backed down when Karen pointed out in a Vancouver Sun article that Alberta's vendetta against BC wines was a pure gift to the campaign, bringing more people onside because the trade action was so manifestly unfair. Our thanks to Premier John Horgan and Environment Minister George Heyman for staying the course and we'll look forward to seeing what the court has to say about the right of a province to protect the health of its citizens and its environment.

Dive into our new SeaChoice website

Our sustainable seafood program, SeaChoice, launches into the New Year with a new direction and website.

Navigating seafood sustainability issues can be complex. The new website serves as a one-stop-shop for information and resources on aquaculture and fisheries, seafood markets, eco-labels, as well as labelling and traceability. It features species of priority to the Canadian market that urgently require sustainability improvements and the solutions needed to effect those improvements.

The website also unveils SeaChoice’s new direction, which is to drive improvements through the entire seafood supply chain. Living Oceans and our SeaChoice colleagues are working hard to ensure eco-labels are credible and robust, that retailers continue to progress with their seafood sustainability commitments, that seafood is traceable and sufficiently labelled and that seafood sold in or exported from Canada is produced from aquaculture or fisheries with minimal environmental impacts.  

Visit the new website at


Bloodwater Tests Confirmed: Fish Plant Outfall Contaminiated

Living Oceans applauds the B.C. government’s recent decision to conduct a review of fish processing plants, following revealing video of virus-laden bloodwater being discharged into the ocean. Videographer Tavish Campbell released the video last fall together with lab results showing the bloodwater was contaminated with piscine reovirus (PRV). The provincial government ordered fresh samples to be taken and tested. Results just reported publicly indicate not only high levels of PRV, but also enterococcus bacterium—something you’d expect to find in raw sewage.

After the video and initial lab results were released publicly, the fish farming industry said that discharge from fish processing plants was disinfected prior to release to the environment. Statements from both the B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association and Brown’s Bay Packing Co. Ltd. cast doubt on the lab reports and on the people involved in sampling and testing. The news from the government’s tests makes it clear that the discharge was not disinfected.

“The levels of enterococcus were so high that they couldn’t be counted accurately,” said Karen Wristen, Executive Director. “The lab reported them at over 60,000 bacteria per 100 ml of effluent. For comparison, the safe level for recreational waters is less than 70 bacteria per 100 ml.”

Documents on file with the B.C. government indicate that the Brown’s Bay plant is indeed equipped with a chlorination facility, but it has a bypass valve. Chlorine would have inactivated both enterococcus and PRV. Alexandra Morton of Raincoast Research Society, who viewed Tavish’s initial samples, said they contained live intestinal worms and that the virus was later cultured in the lab, meaning it was alive when sampled and able to infect other fish.

It is difficult to put the lab results into perspective, since we don’t know how high the levels of these pathogens are after dilution in the waters of Brown’s Bay or near the plant in Tofino. Levels this high really require testing of the local waters on a priority basis to understand the risk to human health and the marine environment.

It is presently unknown why the levels of enterococcus were so high in the processing plant waste. It is common practice to starve fish for several days before slaughter, so that their guts will be empty. A DFO webpage entitled “Thinking Out of the Box: Exploring Strategies to Reduce Sea Lice Infestations in Salmon Farms1” dated 2017-01-19 reports that DFO has been exploring since 2013 the use of beneficial bacteria added to feed to increase resistance to sea lice, but there is no publicly available information about the content of feeds currently in use. Samples taken from the well of a boat used to transport fish to Lions Gate also tested positive for enterococcus, but the levels (690 CFU/100 ml) were orders of magnitude lower than the levels at the plants.

Alex Morton has asked the Ministry of the Environment to look into the potential for danger to human health and the marine environment arising from this bloodwater. However, the most urgent concern is, now that government knows about this plume of PRV-infected bloodwater, are they going to allow another generation of Fraser River salmon to swim through it starting in a few weeks?

Footnote 1:

Over 60 organisations call on the MSC eco-label to raise the bar

//livingoceans [at]" />Last month, Living Oceans joined over sixty marine conservation organisations, animal protection groups and academics in a joint letter to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) criticising the eco-label for failing to improve their standard relating to environmental impacts,  resulting in a growing number of controversial fisheries receiving or retaining the “certified sustainable” label.

Principle 2 of the MSC Standard assesses a fishery’s impact on species that are not the target certification species, as well as the impact of the fishery on habitat and overall ecosystem health. The current standard (as applied by auditors) has allowed fisheries to be certified that:

  • Catch large amounts of vulnerable and endangered species;
  • Routinely discard excessive amounts of bycatch;
  • Continue to catch overfished species;
  • Destroy sensitive sea bed habitats; and
  • Continue to use unsustainable, non-certified fishing methods for much of their catch.

Controversial MSC fisheries are found in Canadian waters. For example, the Gulf of St Lawrence snow crab trap fishery was recently granted re-certification despite evidence that the fishery’s gear is implicated in mortal entanglements of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.  Our 2017 SeaChoice report What’s Behind the Label? found that failure to meet deadlines for Principle 2 conditions has yet to result in any Canadian fishery losing their MSC certification. In fact, only 15 percent of Principle 2 conditions of certification resulted in a change to ‘on the water’ fishery practices.

So far, the MSC has stated their intention to undertake additional work and initiatives to address the concerns.  Living Oceans will continue to work with our SeaChoice partners and international allies to ensure the MSC raises its standard. 

Washington State Salmon Farms: All But History

Minor differences between bills passed in Washington State Senate and House are all that stand in the way of an outright ban on salmon farming in State waters.  It is expected that those differences can be ironed out between legislators and that salmon farms will eke out their existing leases with no prospect of renewal.

The industry is already fighting back in the courts, but in the meantime, colleagues at Wild Fish Conservancy broke the news that the fish that escaped from Cooke Aquaculture’s Puget Sound farm last summer were infected with a Norwegian strain of the piscine reovirus (PRV).  Outrage that wild salmon rivers were infected with an exotic strain of a virulent pathogen is stoking public support for the legislators’ prompt and decisive action.

The reaction of Canadian governments to Cooke’s fish carrying the same pathogen into Canadian rivers is markedly less decisive. Though the fish have been reported entering rivers as far north as Port Hardy, there is no systematic survey underway to find which rivers are contaminated.  The DFO continues to rely on anglers and fishermen to provide voluntary reports to the Atlantic Salmon Watch programme.

In some ways, it is understandable that no great hue and cry occurred here: the federal Fisheries Minister has been authorizing the transfer of PRV-infected fish into Canadian net pens for years.  It is well known that some 80-90% of farmed fish stock is contaminated with the virus and that the contamination is practically irreversible.  In other words, if they were required to use pathogen-free stock, salmon farmers would be out of business.

Yes, out of business…just like in Washington State.

BC Salmon Farms: Occupied, Vilified, and Still Stocking

Despite ongoing occupations by First Nations insisting on their UNDRIP right to prevent salmon farming in their territories, salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago whose leases expire in June of 2018 have been restocked with fish that will not be ready to harvest by the end of the lease period.

Although Agriculture Minister Lana Popham earlier advised salmon farmers that the future of their tenures was not certain, the Province has yet to take any formal public position on their fate. There are 26 licensed tenures in the Broughton Archipelago that local First Nations want to see removed.

Provincial action on the aquaculture file at present includes meetings with First Nations and industry in an attempt to resolve the Broughton impasse and a review of diagnostic practices at the Animal Health Laboratory that is contracted to do pathology for the federal Fish Health Audit programme. A review of fish processing plants has just been announced, in the wake of evidence that two plants are discharging bloodwater that has not been treated and is contaminated with PRV and enterococcus bacterium.

Federally, a new review has been assigned to Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, who has been asked to look into DFO’s aquaculture science and regulation. Terms of reference for the review have yet to be published, but we have some hope that it will be a robust inquiry into the science gaps that plague the regulation of the industry.

“This makes 4 provincial reviews, a federal judicial inquiry and now a second, focused review at the federal level in the 25 years since I first took on this file,” said Karen Wristen. “There will always be knowledge gaps, but we know enough now to understand that wild salmon need action taken immediately to protect them from salmon farming effluents.”

Upcycled Fish Floats

Our up-cycling project with fishing floats was a great success.  This year we engaged two new schools in the project - Pear Tree Elementary School in Kitsilano and Crofton House School in Kerrisdale.  All the little elves from these two schools created beautiful ornaments by painting the fish floats we recovered during our Clear the Coast expeditions.  A big shout-out to those two schools for helping us making ocean debris fun and beautiful and for generously contributing time and money to this worthy cause.

We doubled the number of popups at two different stores - at Patagonia and Arc’teryx we sold ornaments and Seahugger t-shirts while talking about the ever-increasing plastic problem.  Overall, we doubled the revenue we made last year and all of the proceeds will be used for the next Clear the Coast initiative.  If you would like to volunteer next summer for beach cleanups along the west coast of Vancouver Island, keep an eye on our website for details to come later in the spring.  It’s a great way to see the island, be purposeful and have some fun along the way!

What Canada needs now more than ever is to address the plastic conundrum and engage all of us - the non-profit sector, industry, the public and all levels of government - in a process to create an action plan to reduce the entry of plastic into our oceans and fund the removal of plastics from our shorelines.

Law Reform: Bills in Progress

The ambitious federal law reform agenda is producing bills at a prodigious rate. Taken together, they represent the most comprehensive retooling of environmental protection in the country’s history, as well as a new high-water mark in the relationship of the federal government to indigenous peoples. While none of the bills has as yet been passed into law and many are facing substantial opposition from affected industries, it remains clear that much ground lost during the Harper government is going to be recovered.

We won’t even try for any kind of comprehensive analysis in this short piece; but here’s a snapshot of how we see things shaping up. Click on the links provided for a synopsis of the changes being introduced.

Bill C-69 is “An Act to enact the Impact Assessment Act and the Canadian Energy Regulator Act, to amend the Navigation Protection Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts”:

Impact Assessment Act: replaces a patchwork of assessment processes with a single federal agency mandated to engage indigenous peoples and communities impacted by a project at its earliest stages. Espouses the principle of sustainability in place of ‘environmental impact’ and promises open, independently reviewed science. These changes do appear to be positive but may fall short of addressing the key difficulty we find with large project assessment: project applications rarely provide the level of detail required for truly science-based decision-making.  Without that, ‘early engagement’ of communities is really only about buying consent.

Canadian Energy Regulator ActThe NEB is dead; long live the CER! Seriously, the jury has to remain out on this one. The intent, to modernize the regulator and improve transparency and accountability, while ensuring certainty, timeliness and market access, sounds like having one’s cake and eating it, too. We will need to see the regulations, policy and procedures roll out before it will be possible to say that this Act has been effective in restoring public confidence in the energy regulator.

Sign on Beach in West Van

Canadian Navigable Waters Act: restores some protection to all navigable waters, but cherry-picks only  a few waterways for full protection. Fails to restore the full scope of protections that existed under the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

Oil Tanker Moratorium Act: (Bill C-48) Prohibits oil tankers that are carrying more than 12,500 tonnes of crude oil or persistent oil as cargo from stopping, or unloading, at ports or marine installations located along British Columbia's north coast. While the exemption is high, it is meant to permit regular shipments of fuel oil to coastal communities in B.C. and Alaska to continue. Those would include the articulated tug-barge traffic that caused a spill in Heiltsuk territory last year and a scare this year when the coupling between barge and tug gave way in heavy seas, putting the barge at risk of grounding in Gwaii Haanas. We are thrilled to see the bill brought forward nonetheless, as it does put to rest schemes to build northern Canadian pipelines and transport millions of barrels of crude through dangerous waters and sensitive habitat.

Nathan E. Stewart