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'A scientific sin': 16 Canadian salmon scientists claim DFO sea lice report was manipulated

16 scientists slam a recent DFO report that found salmon farms had an "insignificant" impact on wild salmon infestations — claiming the report's authors cherry-picked data, ignored scientific consensus and failed to consult with experts outside the department.
tavish campbell salmon sea lice 1
A wild salmonid infested with sea lice in B.C. waters.

A group of over a dozen leading fish scientists are slamming a federal study that found “no statistically significant association” between infested salmon farms and sea lice in nearby wild salmon.

The letter, signed by 16 scientists from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Victoria, among others, said the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) Science Response Report, published last month, contained “serious scientific failings,” including cherry-picked data and a lack of consultation with leading experts outside DFO.

The biggest flaw in the report, says Gideon Mordecai, a research associate studying salmon viruses at UBC who signed the letter, comes from evidence the report's authors ran multiple statistical analyses, picked the answer that suited their bias and only reported that.

“It's a scientific sin,” Mordecai said.

After the release of DFO's Canadian Scientific Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) report last week, the BC Salmon Farmers Association released a statement saying sea lice “naturally occur in the Pacific Ocean” and that industry “diligently practice precautionary management measures to minimize sea lice transmission from farmed to wild salmon.”

The industry group said the CSAS report is just the latest to conclude that open-net salmon farms have minimal impact on wild salmon in terms of transmitting disease.

“This comprehensive CSAS report adds to the nine previous CSAS science reviews (2020) on salmon aquaculture in B.C. that concluded ‘minimal risk’ to Fraser River sockeye salmon from all relevant fish pathogens of concern,” the association said in a press release.

But the open letter pushed back against the BC Salmon Farmers Association's claims, stating the report “in no way overturns the accumulated scientific evidence that salmon farms are one of the primary drivers of sea louse infestations on nearby wild juvenile salmon” and that “given the report’s major flaws, its findings are not suitable to feed into the upcoming CSAS 'risk assessment of sea lice in B.C.' or policy decisions concerning B.C. salmon farms.”

Federal documents show data omissions, lack of scientific oversight, claims open letter

In documents released through federal access to information and privacy laws, Mordecai said he and his colleagues looked at the data and methods the DFO researchers used.

In contrast to the DFO study, a simple analysis of the report’s own results indicated an “overall significant association” between sea lice infestations on salmon farms and the probability of infestations in wild juvenile chum and pink salmon, said the 16 scientists in their open letter.

The government-backed report also relied on an unvalidated and out-of-date model of infestation, failed to report all the analyses and omitted “statistically significant results,” claimed the letter. 

The group of scientists also raised concerns over the external scientific review process, stating the report was written by employees of DFO Aquaculture Management and Aquaculture Science and was externally reviewed by one industry-associated professor and “clearly violated any reasonable standards of independent peer review.”

The authors of the open letter pointed to more than 30 peer-reviewed scientific papers from B.C. that link sea lice on wild juvenile salmon to salmon farms. But when it came to drawing up the report's conclusions, the scientists say those studies were ignored.

DFO was not immediately available for comment.

In a statement, BC Salmon Farmers Association executive director Brian Kingzett said industry was not involved in analyzing the data in the report, and didn’t have a hand in developing its findings. He added the data behind the DFO study was already publicly available through DFO and company smolt monitoring reports. 

“The CSAS process represents Canada’s best federal and external academic scientists. The committees review extensive research and develop consensus among its members and produces very conservative results,” Kingzett said.

“Anti-salmon farming activists who do not agree with the results are trying to claim the process is flawed or compromised by industry. We do not agree with this position at all.”

A pattern of scientific manipulation?

Mordecai said the manipulation of data and biased conclusions are the same strategies DFO has relied on when it comes to analyzing the impact of Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), a debilitating virus widely seen in Atlantic salmon. It can transmit through open-water pens into wild Pacific salmon populations. 

“We've seen this in the past,” said Mordecai, pointing to previous DFO risk analyses in the Discovery Islands and elsewhere. “...these are the same strategies.”

Sean Godwin, a post-doctoral fellow at SFU and incoming assistant professor at University of California, Davis, said the DFO study simply amounted to bad science.

“The analysis is just straight up not up to par,” said the sea lice expert, who has spent over a decade studying the problem.

“Ultimately, if these results were heeded, it could lead to salmon farms staying in the water where they otherwise wouldn't be,” said Godwin. “And that would affect the ecosystems and the peoples that depend on these really important fish.”

Criticism comes ahead of pending decision on salmon farms

In June 2022, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray said she would move to phase out salmon farms on B.C.’s coast. But just how the phase-out will happen is still not clear.

To start with, the decision did not include the Discovery Islands, which had been subject to legal action. Murray’s predecessor, Bernadette Jordan, initially moved to phase out 19 fish farms in the Discovery Islands near Campbell River by July 2022. But that decision was overturned by a federal court judge in 2021, in a ruling that found the ministry hadn’t properly consulted with industry. Last year, Murray said she would make a decision on the future of the Discovery Islands salmon farms by the end of January 2023, but so far has not come forward with a position.

A statement from Murray's office said she “is aware of the concerns raised” over the recent DFO sea lice report. 

“She is carefully considering all related information and her licensing decisions in the Discovery Islands are forthcoming,” wrote Jeff Woodland, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Godwin said he hopes the letter will prompt DFO to admit to mistakes and breaches to scientific conduct in the report, to withdraw it, and not include its conclusions in any upcoming decisions over salmon farms.

In their open letter, the scientists called on the federal government to release the data the report relied on, and urged Murray to improve the quality of science that reaches her, and engage with scientists outside of industry and DFO.

“Wild salmon deserve better,” they wrote, later adding, “The scientific community is ready to contribute.”