VICTORIA — The threat that mink farms in British Columbia would become a “reservoir” for COVID-19 infections is too great a health hazard, prompting the government to phase out of all the farms, the provincial health officer says. 

Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham announced Friday a permanent ban on breeding mink. Live mink will also not be allowed on the province’s nine farms by April 2023. All operations must cease completely and have all their pelts sold by 2025. 

Henry said an assessment by national and international experts showed the transmission of COVID-19 back and forth between humans and mink would continue. 

While the highly transmissible Delta variant hasn’t been found on mink farms, the threat remains for a virus to mutate in mink, then be passed back to humans. Henry said a mutation could affect the effectiveness of vaccines. 

“Mink farming continues to be a health hazard in my opinion, and in the opinion of my public health colleagues,” Henry told a news conference. “And in addition, there’s concern that there’s increased risk due to ongoing persistence of infected mink, which indicate the higher potential for mink being a reservoir for the virus than was previously assessed.” 

There are about 318,000 mink on the farms and many of them will be used for pelts before the phaseout deadline, Henry said. 

The B.C. Mink Producers Association said in a statement it was “shocked, angered and devastated” to hear the announcement that the province was banning mink farming. 

“We’ve done everything that has been asked of us. We’ve always gone above and beyond to protect our families, farms, and the public,” said association president Joe Williams.

He said most of the farms are multi-generational, 40 per cent of them are raised on farms with Indigenous heritage and the sector supports over 250 people and their families. 

His statement said they’ve worked hard to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and there’s currently only one farm in B.C. that has infections, “therefore we will be forced to kill herds of perfectly healthy animals.” 

B.C. placed a moratorium on new mink farms and capped existing operations at their current animal populations in July after more mink tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.

Popham said operators of the farms were informed of the decision on Friday. 

“We know that this is a very challenging day for those farmers. We are going to be assessing them in transition and help them pursue other opportunities.”

Popham said insurance and other government programs will help the operators and those working on the farms to transition to new agricultural jobs or to other trades. 

The transition phase will allow the operators time to plan for the closure of their farms, Popham said. In the meantime, biosecurity measures will be in place on the farms, she said. 

There have been COVID-19 outbreaks in mink on at least three B.C. farms since December and one farm remains under quarantine, while two others are under quarantine measures that limit their operations.

At least a dozen workers on one of the farms tested positive for COVID-19. Henry said there have been persistent COVID-19 infections on one of the three farms that the operator hasn’t been able to stem. 

The British Columbia SPCA has called for a moratorium on mink farming, saying the animals are kept in tightly packed cages where infection spreads quickly and they shouldn’t be killed for clothing. 

But Henry and Popham said that the decision to shut the farms was based solely on health considerations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.

The Canadian Press