British Columbia is beginning a process to phase out the farming of mink in the province, Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham announced Friday.
The process, which is being implemented because of concerns over COVID-19, is expected to be completed by April 2025, Popham said.
Mink on three different B.C. farms have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 since last November, and groups including the BC SPCA, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, and more than two dozen infectious disease specialists have called for the end of mink farming in the province.
Denmark ordered the slaughter of millions of mink in November 2020 over concerns that the coronavirus could mutate in the animals and be passed back to humans.
Popham promised that B.C. would provide support to mink farmers and their workers as they wind down their operations.
“We know that it is in the best interest of public health that this decision is made,” Popham said. “Our government will work with affected farmers and workers to help them pursue other farming businesses or job opportunities that support their families.”
Those affected by the phase-out will also be eligible for existing government benefits programs, the minister said.
There are currently nine mink farms operating in B.C. They employ approximately 150 people.
The province plans to implement a permanent ban on breeding mink, with a ban on housing live mink at the existing farms by April 2023 and the end of all mink farm operations, with all remaining pelts sold, by April 2025.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said after B.C.’s first two mink farm outbreaks, officials believed the COVID-19 risk posed by the industry was low.
“(We thought) we would likely be dealing with one-to-two outbreaks per year in the small number of farms that we have here in British Columbia,” Henry said.
“Since that time, however, we have had another outbreak on an additional farm that has not been able to be cleared, despite increased biosecurity measures, ongoing testing, vaccination of staff and the many, many different measures that we’ve put in place.”
Henry said there is ongoing transmission of COVID-19 between humans and mink on one farm in the province, and three farms are on quarantine orders.
“Mink farming continues to be a health hazard, in my opinion and the opinion of my public health colleagues,” she said. “We don’t see that assessment changing in the short term.”
In addition to concerns about mink being a possible source of new, more-virulent or vaccine-resistant variants of the coronavirus, Henry also noted the possibility that escaped mink could transmit the virus to wild animals, which would also pose a risk to public health.
Mink breeders are slamming the province’s decision, calling it radical and unnecessary.
“We’ve had less than five per cent of our Canadian (mink fur) farms become positive with COVID-19. I think that’s commendable,” said Matt Moses, a Nova Scotia mink farmer and former president of the Canada Mink Breeders Association.
Moses believes the move to shut down mink fur farms is politically driven.
“This life-changing decision for our B.C. producers was based on pressure from activist groups and vocal minority groups,” he said. “It’s not based on science, research, or facts.”
The agriculture minister denies the decision is anything but an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“As we’ve worked through this decision and taken the advice of public health officers, I can assure you this (decision) was based on public health,” Popham said.
Notably, the BC SPCA also criticized the province’s rationale for ending mink farming.
“I think it’s an interesting choice to ignore the animal welfare issues,” said Marcie Moriarty, the BC SPCA’s chief prevention and enforcement officer.
Moriarty added that her organization is pleased with the province’s decision.
Henry said the multi-year time frame for the phase-out is intended to give mink farm operators ample time to get the best price for their remaining stock.
While live mink will be allowed to be kept on the farms until early 2023, she said she anticipates that there will be a “much reduced” number after the current pelting season. The province believes it can manage any safety risk posed by the remaining mink populations over the next year and a half, Henry said.