The Fraser Valley has 80% of B.C.'s poultry farms. Now avian flu is threatening almost an entire industry

·3 min read
Two-week old turkeys at a turkey farm in Richmond, B.C. Farmers in the province's poultry heartland, the Fraser Valley, are expressing concern as a continent-wide outbreak of avian flu has reached their flocks. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Two-week old turkeys at a turkey farm in Richmond, B.C. Farmers in the province's poultry heartland, the Fraser Valley, are expressing concern as a continent-wide outbreak of avian flu has reached their flocks. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Members of B.C.'s poultry farming community are apprehensive about a rapidly-spreading outbreak of avian flu in the Fraser Valley, home to 80 per cent of the province's farms.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed an outbreak of the highly infectious H5N1 avian influenza virus at a commercial turkey farm in Abbotsford, about 71 kilometres southeast of Vancouver, on Thursday.

It is the 10th confirmed outbreak among poultry flocks in B.C., and the second of two large commercial operations impacted, with the other confirmed in the province's Interior region. Wildlife throughout the country, and the continent, have been impacted by the virus.

In 2004, an outbreak in the Fraser Valley led to a cull of more than 16 million birds — leaving farmers especially on edge about the current outbreak's potential impact.

Confirmed avian flu outbreaks in B.C. in 2022

 

"We're nervous. We've seen what it can do, back in 2004, where we lost the entire industry here in the Fraser Valley," said Mark Siemens, who runs Siemens Farms in Abbotsford.

Siemens, who is also president of the B.C. Egg Producers' Association, said farmers in the Fraser Valley had already faced numerous setbacks in the last year.

"As a farmer, we just feel like we really need a break. You know, we went through a heat wave last year, in a pandemic, and a flood, and now this," he said. "It's definitely emotionally fatiguing."

Location of flocks infected with avian flu in B.C.

 

Safety measures in place

While there has been no confirmed case of avian flu in humans during the current outbreak, the disease can be deadly for birds, according to Lisa Bishop-Spencer, director of communications for the Chicken Farmers of Canada.

Bishop-Spencer says it is the first country-wide avian flu outbreak of this scale in Canada.

"If it is an avian influenza situation, that flock will be ordered depopulated by the CFIA," she said. "And then the CFIA sort of takes over that site."

The CFIA then issues quarantine orders for farms within 10 kilometres of the infected farm, according to Bishop-Spencer, which forms a "primary control zone" to attempt and isolate the outbreak.

She says the quarantine measures, and the cull of any infected flocks, can have a huge negative impact on farmers' livelihoods.

In addition to quarantine measures, under a provincewide order, commercial poultry producers with 100 or more birds are required to keep them indoors until June 13.

Shawn Foss/CBC
Shawn Foss/CBC

Another order requires bird owners to not take their birds to events like bird auctions and flea markets until June 19.

Ray Nickel, who is representing the B.C. Poultry Association at the emergency operations centre set up to deal with the crisis, says the 2022 avian flu outbreak poses a significant threat to the industry.

"There's a reason why this is notifiable [to farmers]. It's notifiable because it is such a virulent disease. It's like nothing else that you will see in your flock," he said.

Concern for wild birds and pelicans

There is also concern for wild birds who transmit and get infected with the virus themselves.

"Avian flu is primarily spread through through migratory birds. Birds can carry it and not be affected by it," Nickel said.

"If birds are defecating in or around your facility and you're unaware, walk through that and move it into your barn, you could potentially get contamination."

Matt McKean/Associated Press
Matt McKean/Associated Press

B.C.'s forest ministry told CBC News that the province had received reports of suspected avian flu among pelicans at numerous lakes in the Cariboo region, in B.C.'s central Interior.

One case has been confirmed in a pelican found at Alkali Lake. The American white pelican is on B.C.'s red list, which means it is severely endangered due to habitat loss.

Wild birds, including a bald eagle, have also tested positive for H5 strains of avian influenza in or near 100 Mile House, Bowen Island, Chilliwack, Kelowna, Metro Vancouver, Vanderhoof and Williams Lake, according to the province.

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