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Whistleblower video raises concerns about fish welfare at B.C. caviar farm

No violations found during site visit, but BC SPCA and DFO reviewing hundreds of hours of footage

A B.C. caviar operation is under investigation after an animal rights group says it obtained hundreds of hours of footage from a whistleblower at the site, showing what they call “heartbreaking cruelty.”

Canadian non-profit Animal Justice says the video was captured in November 2023 at Northern Divine Aquafarms in Sechelt. The fish farm breeds salmon and sturgeon for their eggs and was North America’s first certified organic caviar farm, according to the Government of B.C. website.

Now, it’s being eyed by the BC SPCA and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) for possible violations of provincial or federal laws.

Black Press Media reached out to both Northern Divine Aquafarms on Tuesday, as well as parent company Caviar & Caviar, but did not hear back as of Wednesday morning. This story will be updated with comment if provided.

Parts of the whistleblower footage released by Animal Justice on Tuesday (March 12) show fish that appear to be living in cramped and dirty conditions and fish being thrown into buckets of ice water prior to them being killed. One shot shows a salmon that seems to have survived slaughter thrashing in a bloody bucket of dead fish.

Other shots exhibit workers sticking a clear plastic tube into the fish and using their own mouths to suck out eggs or using a device to stab into the fishes’ abdomens – a kind of surgical biopsy – to check for egg maturity.

Footage also shows a lone sturgeon swimming circles in a small tank. Animal Justice says the fish is named “Gracie” and is one of a number of sturgeon kept in such conditions for breeding. The group says Gracie has been at Northern Divine Aquafarms for close to 25 years.

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“Northern Divine is inflicting heartbreaking cruelty to fishes who are forced to live in crowded, barren tanks before being brutally killed – all to provide luxury caviar to the handful of wealthy consumers who can afford to eat it,” lawyer Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, said in a statement. “Fishes can’t scream, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer – they’re sentient animals who can feel pain, and deserve better than to spend their lives in cramped, dirty tanks.”

After reviewing the footage themselves, Animal Justice filed a complaint with the BC SPCA. The SPCA is the only animal welfare organization in the province that has the power to enforce animal cruelty legislation. Anyone who violates B.C.’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act could face fines up to $75,000 and imprisonment for up to two years.

Aquaculture facilities are further regulated by DFO, which is responsible for licensing such fish farms. Under DFO’s conditions of licence, operators must show that “fish are cultivated and cared for in a manner that is consistent with their biological requirements and that fish are euthanized in a humane manner that minimizes stress,” a DFO spokesperson told Black Press Media.

The BC SPCA and DFO made an unannounced visit to Northern Divine Aquafarms in January, alongside a veterinarian and biologist, and observed no violations of B.C.’s laws or DFO’s conditions of license at that time.

“From a fish health perspective, the operators demonstrated a high level of attention to the fish in their care at the time of inspection,” DFO wrote in a statement to Black Press Media.

The overall caviar operation remains under investigation by the BC SPCA and DFO, however, while they review the hundreds of hours of footage to see if any violations are apparent in there.

The BC SPCA said it expects this to take a great deal of time and that, with its limited resources, its priority is on “animals currently experiencing distress.”

Northern Divine Aquafarms was purchased by Florida-based Caviar & Caviar last June. According to a release then, the Sechelt farm is located on 60 acres of land and has over 6,000 caviar ready white sturgeon, as well as tens of thousands more in its nursery. Caviar & Caviar said its goal was to up Northern Divine’s production from 18 to 25 tons of caviar a year.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with response from DFO.

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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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