The risk of a new variant of COVID-19 emerging from mink fur farms outweighs the damage to mink farmers by shutting the industry down.
That’s according to a B.C. Supreme Court decision issued last month in a decision over whether to allow mink breeding while the court contemplates the broader issue.
In November, the provincial government announced the phase-out of all mink farms in the province by 2025 due to multiple outbreaks at farms including in Chilliwack and Langley.
In response, the provincial and national mink breeding association, and six mink farms in B.C. want the legislation quashed. In the meantime, mink farmers asked the court to be allowed to breed their animals – something that only takes place once a year in March – until a final decision is made on the future of the industry.
The amendment to the Fur Farm Regulation from November 2021 included a permanent stop on breeding mink and a permanent ban on live mink on farms by April 2023. Operations on B.C.’s nine existing mink farms were ordered to cease completely, with all pelts sold, by April 2025.
“This decision follows the recommendations of public health officials and infectious disease experts about managing the threat of the virus for workers at the farms and the broader public,” said Lana Popham, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries at the time.
Among the reasons listed by the mink farmers to quash the government’s amendments were that the restrictions were based on an “irrational chain of analysis,” which included the uncertainty surrounding the risk to public health from mink farming.
“The Province chose to permanently shut down an industry without having a clear understanding of the risks to public health actually posed by mink farming now and in the future, yet permitted mink farmers to retain live mink on the farms despite the ‘alleged’ risk,” according to the farmers in the written decision released April 8.
For the petition to succeed, the mink farmers had to show three elements: that there was a serious question to be tried by the court; that irreparable harm would result if a stay of proceedings was not granted; and that the balance of convenience favoured the mink farmers.
A “balance of convenience” refers to what impact court decisions have on the interest of third parties, in this case the general public.
Justice Carol Ross agreed there was a serious question to be tried, and that the mink farming industry faces irreparable harm if their animals cannot be bred during the narrow window of breeding season. But she decided the balance of convenience did not warrant an injunction to allow them to ignore the province’s decision to shut down mink farms.
“There is a risk of the evolution of a new variant of concern leading to a new wave of COVID-19 which could be a potentially catastrophic outcome,” Justice Ross wrote.
“Mink is the leading domesticated animal reservoir of the virus. While no variant of concern has occurred, that remains a possibility.”
Part of the risk is that there has not yet been a breeding season with Omicron as the dominant variant.
“It is not possible to say what the epidemiological characteristics could be of a descendant of Omicron that evolved in mink populations.”
There are nine mink farms in B.C. that employ around 200 people.
The government has said it will work with impacted farmers and workers to help them transition to new agricultural jobs or to other trades or careers.
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