When Tavish Campbell went for a dive to investigate a wastewater pipe in Brown’s Bay on Canada’s Vancouver Island, he wasn’t expecting a bloodbath.
“It was unbelievable what I saw,” Campbell says in a video he shot with collaborators Steve Schellenberg and Farlyn Campbell over three months. The video has sparked dozens of alarmed news stories in British Columbia and beyond.
In the footage, Campbell comes upon a bright red cloud of blood spewing from an open pipe owned by Brown’s Bay Packing Company, a processing plant for farmed Atlantic salmon. “I think I just about choked on my [scuba] regulator,” he says. “The processing plant was releasing the blood of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon, right into British Columbia’s largest wild salmon migration route. A third of all the wild salmon in British Columbia swim past this bay.”
In an interview with Vice’s Motherboard, Campbell said he chose to dive at that location after watching the ecosystem near his home change over the years; he suspected it had something to do with the packing company.
Campbell took samples of the blood coming out of the pipe for testing. He discovered that the blood was infected with Piscine Reovirus, a common salmon virus. While not known to be harmful to humans, an outbreak of Piscine Reovirus among farmed fish can kill as much as 20% of the population (pdf). There also “seemed to be a lot of intestinal worms wriggling around in it,” Campbell said.
The video includes shots of juvenile wild salmon swimming only a few hundred feet from the pipe and the packing plant.
In Norway, law demands that companies disinfect waste blood before they can release it through disposal pipes like this one, Campbell says. That’s “because they’ve associated disease outbreaks with the release of infectious waste from processing plants.
“In beautiful British Columbia, we’re just dumping it in the channel. But it’s out of sight, so no one knows.”
CTV News in British Columbia contacted the manager of Brown’s Bay Packing, which said it had a permit for the pipe. The company told CBC News in Canada that it did disinfect the blood before discharge. “While the liquid discharged remains red in colour, the treatment process is designed specifically to treat for fish pathogens,” Brown’s Bay Packing said in the statement to CBC.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association told CBC that the virus present in the blood samples could have come from wild salmon populations.
British Columbia’s environment minister, George Heyman, told the outlet that the government is investigating the issue. He said Brown’s Bay Packing hasn’t been inspected since 2013, and is operating under permits granted some 30 years ago.
As Motherboard points out, the government of British Columbia also announced in October it was launching a review of fish farming practices; presumably blood pipes will be among the practices reviewed.