Saturday, February 8, 2020

When Media Gets the Science Wrong We All Suffer

I was dismayed by a recent news story on CTV on the escape of farm fish into native fish waters. I was dismayed by: 1) the ecological impacts of this accident; and 2) the incomplete and inaccurate reporting.

Misleading Reporting by CTV        
In late December 2019, a fire at the Mowi fish farm in BC waters near Port Hardy resulted in the escape of over twenty thousand Atlantic salmon. The news story by the CTV media proved biased, incomplete and erroneous—and ultimately dangerous.

CTV reported that “environmentalists and indigenous groups” were concerned that the escaped Atlantic salmon “presents ecological and environmental risks to an already fragile wild salmon population.” But CTV failed to verify or refute these opinions with evidence-based statements by environmental scientists: government or academics with real expertise and authority.

CTV did talk to a “so-called” expert to counter the position of the environmentalists: a vet (Dr. Hugh Mitchell), who works for the fish farm: “[Atlantic salmon] are brought up on prepared fish pellets from since they start feeding …They don’t know how to forage. They don’t know how to find rivers and reproduce. They get eaten by predators or they die of starvation after they escape.” (see below for proof against this). A vet does not have the expertise of a fish biologist or oceanographer / ecologist or geneticist—all of who would better understand the potential impact of released exotic species to native species. CTV ended its story with a remark by the managing director of Mowi who said, “Data would suggest there’s a very low risk to the [Atlantic] salmon making it to any rivers and an even lower risk of them establishing successful populations within the BC environment.”

Where was this data to prove the Mowi director’s claim? CTV provided no substantiation or valid refutation; nor did CTV provide a more robust inquiry into other potential risks such as impact of disease. Why weren’t unbiased authorities at DFO, UBC, Uvic, or Simon Fraser University consulted for their expertise instead of a vet who works for the aquaculture industry?

Other News Reporting

The Vancouver Sun, which also covered this story, showed more balance in its reporting. However, the in its DFO reaction, the Sun did not address the issue directly: “Among the feedback the federal government has received through early consultations on the legislation is a need for a more effective risk management framework and support for Indigenous involvement and rights in the sector.”

The Georgia Straight used the right word—claimed—to describe Mowi’s unsubstantiated statements: “The company claimed that the escaped fish are easy prey because they are ‘unaccustomed to living in the wild, and thus unable to forage for their own food.’” The Straight also balanced that claim with another by Ernest Alfred of the ‘Ngamis First Nation and videographer and wild-salmon advocate Tavis Campbell, who suggested that the presence of Atlantic salmon in ocean water “presents a serious threat to native Pacific salmon through transfer of pathogens and other associated risks”. While The Straight did not follow through with scientific verification, they provided relevant historic precedence: “After a larger number of Atlantic salmon escaped from a Washington state fish farm near Bellingham in 2017, these species were found as far away as the Saanich Inlet and Harrison River.” Hardly the weaklings described by Mowi and Mitchell.

Global News provided a historic examination of the August 2017 net pens collapse in the waters off northwest Washington to demonstrate the seriousness of the potential impact: “Up to 263,000 invasive Atlantic salmon escaped into Puget Sound, raising fears about the impact on native Pacific salmon runs. The incident inspired Washington state to introduce legislation that would phase out marine farming of non-native fish by 2022. Groups like the Pacific Salmon Foundation have called for the B.C. and federal governments to do the same in Canada.”

Declining Pacific Wild Salmon

Wild Pacific salmon have been declining for decades off the BC coast and streams, according to DFO. A genetic study reported in the journal Conservation Letters suggests that sockeye salmon returns have dropped by three-quarters in the Skeena River over the last century. Human interference is primarily responsible, which includes habitat destruction, diversions for agriculture and hydro-power, over-fishing, and climate change. Habitat destruction—both quantity and quality—has occurred mainly through logging, road construction, urban development, mining, agriculture and recreation.
Added to that list is the aquaculture industry that uses Atlantic salmon, an exotic to the Pacific Ocean. A recent study conducted by the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative (SSHI) revealed that the piscine reovirus (PRV) found in farmed Atlantic salmon is linked to disease in Pacific Chinook salmon. The SSHI is an initiative made up of scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Genome B.C., and the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF).
The findings show that the same strain of PRV, known to cause heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) in farmed Atlantic salmon, is causing Chinook salmon to develop jaundice-anemia, a condition that ruptures red blood cells, and causes organ failure in the fish. The disease could pose a serious threat to wild salmon migrating past open-net fish farms in coastal waters in B.C.
Concerns about the decline of Pacific salmon after the Big Bar landslide in the Fraser River near Kamloops have prompted scientists to suggest this could result in the extinction of multiple salmon runs by 2020. The federal Liberal government has pledged to transition BC’s open-net pen salmon farms to closed inland containment systems by 2025.
All this corroborates the serious risk of Atlantic salmon farming. Accidents must be expected. They always occur. Risk analysis must include the certainty of this inevitability—just as water engineers must account for 100-year storms, which do happen.
Need for Better Risk Management (Type I and Type II Errors in Risk Assessment) 

The scientific method relies on accurately measuring certainty and therefore reliably predicting risk. This means accounting for all biases and errors within an experiment or exploration. In my work as a field scientist and environmental consultant representing a client, we often based our formal hypotheses in statistics, which considered two types of error: Type I and Type II errors. Type I errors are false positives: a researcher states that a specific relationship exists when in fact it does not. This is akin to an alarm sounding when there’s no fire. Type II errors are false negatives: the researcher states that no relationship occurs when in fact it does. This is akin to not sounding an alarm when a fire is blazing.
The reason why remarks made by vet Mitchell and Mowi are so dangerous is because they make assumptions that are akin to not sounding an alarm when there is a fire; they are committing a Type II error. In risk assessment, this is dangerous. In news reporting, this is irresponsible.

When reporting on science-related issues with associated risk, media must ultimately seek out evidence-based science through scientists with relevant knowledge (e.g. an ecologist—not an economist or a vet—for an environmental issue). It is fine to start with claim and position; but science reporting must conclude with fact and truth.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.