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General · 1st February 2012
Ray Grigg
Judge Bruce Cohen obviously thought that recent evidence of the Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISAv) in BC's wild salmon was serious enough to warrant a reconvening of his Commission of inquiry into the mysterious disappearance of Fraser River sockeye. The three days of exceptional December hearings were revelatory, confusing and clarifying. We have ISAv in BC waters but we don't have disease. We have different labs getting positive and negative test results on the same fish samples. We have critically important research curtailed just when such vital information is most needed. We have intimations of openness in a practice of obstruction and censure. And we have huge financial benefits accruing to corporate interests if BC's farmed and wild salmon can be marketed free of the stigma of disease.

The salmon farming industry has been habitually skewing information to bolster its practices and image – it's been doing this for decades. And, as recent history has revealed, the credibility of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been compromised by its conflicting mandates of managing wild salmon and promoting salmon farming. Now we discover that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has its own conflicting mandates of suppressing pathogens while enhancing marketing opportunities for fish products. Consequently, when a viral disease is reported and the commercial value of fish is threatened, the CFIA assumes a defensive position by questioning the findings of the testing labs, by re-testing the degraded samples of infected fish with its notoriously inaccurate technology, and then recording "inconclusive" results as "negative".

This strategy is evident in an e-mail from a CFIA executive, Joseph Beres, to his colleagues, congratulating them on a conference call to the media that was intended to quell concerns about allegations of ISAv in BC salmon. "It is clear that we are turning the PR tide to our favour," he writes, "and this is because of the very successful performance of our spokes at the Tech Briefing yesterday.... Congratulations! One battle is won, now we have to nail the surveillance piece, and we will win the war also." This is the response of a promoter concerned about reputation and market, not the response of a scientist concerned about the danger of an ecosystem-threatening virus.

This might explain why the CFIA didn't submit to the Cohen Commission evidence of ISAv in more than 100 wild salmon a decade ago. And why DFO advised its molecular geneticist, Dr. Kristi Miller, to curtail her research on ISAv – precisely the opposite of how prudence and science should respond to such an urgent situation.

Indeed, the Cohen Commission has exposed a systemic history of closeted secretiveness, hidden motives and contrived deception, all exposed since the initial October revelation that ISAv has been found in wild BC salmon. Dr. Sally Goldes, a 17-year fish health section head for the BC Environment Ministry, testified during the reconvened Cohen inquiry that "current Canada Fish Health Protection Rules do not provide a high level of regulatory security against the introduction of ISAv into British Columbia." To underscore her concern, she noted, "If you really look closely at the regulations, from a scientific basis, there is not the high degree of protection that the government, and particularly DFO, states that they have." In her opinion, the DFO and CFIA press conference that announced no ISAv in BC "was entirely premature." In other words, ISAv could have leaked into BC waters from Atlantic egg sources used by salmon farms, and government agencies are systematically hiding that possibility.

Dr. Kristi Miller, one of the key DFO scientists in this process, took the initiative to do her own testing on wild and farmed salmon. She concluded that an ISA virus, or something that is 95 percent similar to the strain afflicting farmed Atlantic salmon in Norway, Scotland, Maritime Canada and Chile, is present in BC waters. And her review of DFO's archival fish samples shows that markers for ISAv have been present in BC since 1986 – shortly after Atlantic salmon were first farmed here. A study by Dr. Molly Kibenge suggested that ISAv was here in 2004. Despite a UN convention that requires "evidence or suspicion" of ISAv to be reported, this was never done. Neither was evidence of ISAv reported to the initial phase of the Cohen Commission hearings.

Complicating the issue is a technical definition of "disease". The CFIA takes the position that a suite of characteristics are needed to classify ISAv as such. Dr. Miller recognized this criterion in her testimony to the Commission when she said, "And obviously we have not established that [ISAv] causes disease." Without evidence of dying or debilitated fish, there is no "disease". But evidence does exist. A postdoctoral fellow working with Dr. Miller, Brad Davis, notes ample data suggesting "that the virus is causing enough damage to elicit a strong response in salmon.... Therefore, we cannot at this point assume that this virus does not cause disease in these fish." Regular reports cite adult Fraser River salmon inexplicably dying as they migrate upstream, sometimes just days before spawning. Cultus Lake salmon have long been exhibiting the same strange behaviour. Until now, no explanation has been available.

The CFIA has pledged to investigate by subjecting 7,700 salmon to more than 20,000 tests over the next two years. But this does not promise to clarify the mystery of BC's disappearing wild salmon. The CFIA's self-declared "surveillance objectives are to determine the absence/presence of three diseases of trade significance... [and] to support international trade negotiations by making [a] disease-freedom declaration that will stand international scrutiny." If the CFIA's version of science is to start with a trade-friendly conclusion and then research to support it, this does not bode well for BC's wild salmon and the entire marine ecology founded on this iconic fish.