Did Canada cover up deadly salmon virus? Report suggests yes

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Call it Salmongate. The deepening controversy over who knew what and when about a deadly virus that may or may not have been detected in West Coast salmon would be obscure fodder for biologists if there weren't so much at stake -- the health of the West's dwindling stocks of wild salmon, for one. And Canada's $2.1-billion fish farming industry.

Salmon advocates have been reeling for weeks over hotly contested reports that the infectious salmon anemia (ISA) virus that has devastated fish stocks in Europe and South America had been detected in three British Columbia wild salmon -- findings that the Canadian government says have not been confirmed.

Now comes news that signs of the virus actually were detected much earlier, in 117 wild salmon from the Bering Sea in Alaska to Vancouver Island in Canada as long ago as 2002. But it appears that the Canadian government neither fully investigated the findings nor, when they emerged again recently, allowed them to be published.

The report on those earlier tests, now titled "Fishyleaks," surfaced on the Superheroes4salmon blog this week, which detailed studies conducted by staff at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island.

"Such non-disclosure by the Canadian government constitutes a breach of Canada’s international obligations to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), trade partners and to its neighbors in the United States, Russia and Japan who have valuable wild salmon resources," said the blog, which also posted copies of an email from a Canadian government official declining permission to publish the data because they had not been confirmed.

The new reports are proving worrying for biologists up and down the West Coast, not to mention salmon fishermen in Alaska, who have long seen farmed salmon as a threat to the wild salmon stocks that are the crown jewels of that state's multibillion-dollar fishing industry.

Salmon farms crowd fish in close quarters, where infestations such as sea lice can spread quickly and, conservationists and fishing industry leaders fear, potentially jump to wild fish stocks. The ISA outbreak led to a 70% decline in Chile's farmed salmon production in 2007, though the virus is harmless to humans.

"When Alaska banned fish farms, the top reason was to avoid disease spreading to our wild stocks. What was at stake was no mystery: Norway had already killed entire populations of wild fish due to parasites and disease introduced by imported salmon," Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Assn., wrote in a recent guest column for the Vancouver Sun.

"Our state wisely chose to avoid such risk; yet folks to the south of us put us squarely in the path of what Alaskans feared the most," he added. "If the Canadian government has information to quell our concerns, we have not yet heard it. If they have an effective plan of action, we have not yet seen it."

Canadian fisheries officials said in a statement last month that the new reports of infectious salmon anemia detected in British Columbia salmon "have not yet been verified by federal officials through established processes," and initial investigations showed that "proper protocols may not have been followed" in the tests that produced the findings.

"Over the past two years, over 500 wild and farmed salmon in British Columbia have been tested by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. From 2003 to 2010, the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture operated a scientifically designed surveillance program that tested over 4,700 farmed salmon in BC," the agency said. "Again, all samples were negative for the virus. In short, there has never been a confirmed case of ISA in British Columbia salmon -- farmed or wild."

The old report causing all the controversy this week appears to date from 2004, when researchers said that the virus was successfully sequenced, and that 22% of more than 500 fish sampled had tested positive. It said 10 out of 37 chinook caught "inside east Alaska" tested positive.

The results could be good news in some respects, in that the findings could indicate that wild salmon along the Pacific Coast are resistant to a devastating outbreak.

But government overseers in Canada weren't convinced by the results, and said so when they declined to allow the old study to be published this fall when news of the recent virus findings came to light.

In a Nov. 4 email to Molly Kibenge, one of the researchers who did the original study while working in 2002 as a visiting fellow at a government lab on Vancouver Island, Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist Simon R. M. Jones pointed out that the agency had disagreed from the beginning that the findings pointed conclusively to infectious salmon anemia.

"For example, all attempts to isolate the virus into cell culture failed," he noted. He said the agency is now conducting further detailed tests to make a conclusive determination.

"I will wait to hear the outcome of these processes before further discussion on a 7-year-old manuscript," he wrote. "Consequently, I do not give permission to submit this work, whether in this manuscript or any other, for publication."

In a written statement to The Times on Thursday, Michelle Imbeau of the Canadian fisheries agency said government biologists had indeed conducted follow-up tests on the original 2002 findings, which she said were achieved by way of a "highly sensitive" test that often produces false positives.

"Appropriate follow-up was done on Dr. Kibenge's work using more thorough testing procedures and, based on the best science available, it was concluded that her results had produced a false positive and there was no presence of ISA in her samples," Imbeau said.

But the Fishyleaks report cried cover-up.

"Someone should be going to jail over this," John Werring of the David Suzuki Foundation, a Vancouver, Canada-based conservation organization, said in an email quoted in the Fishyleaks report. "Never in my over 20 years of doing my work have I seen such duplicity by our government. The closest thing I can relate to is when whistle-blowers in the U.S. released documents showing that tobacco companies knew their product harmed people... Appalling!"

U.S. officials already are hurrying to conduct studies of their own, with federal legislation passed earlier this month ordering quick studies of what threat infectious salmon anemia poses to fish stocks and how, if necessary, to stop its spread.

"These troubling reports reinforce the need for a coordinated, multinational strategy to control the spread of this virus threat," said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who co-sponsored the legislation. "American and Canadian scientists need to have access to all relevant research on this deadly virus. We can’t afford to leave the Pacific Northwest’s fishery jobs at risk."

In the meantime, some U.S. biologists are troubled that news of the earlier Canadian findings is only now coming to light.

"We had no knowledge of any of this," Jim Winton, a top fish virologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle, told the Seattle Times after reviewing the old report.  "No one ever revealed that there was a publication that was ready to go to a journal or that the data were as compelling as they appear to be. This is puzzling and very frustrating. It's unfortunate that this information was not available sooner. This should have been followed up years ago."

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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: A freshwater pen at the Kokish Hatchery on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, which provides stock to Stolt Sea Farm Inc.'s ocean net pens. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

 

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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