Faith in DFO shaken: B.C. salmon inquiry

An inquiry into the decline of BC sockeye salmon wrapped up its special three-day hearing into the potentially deadly virus known as infectious salmon anemia or ISA this week.

An inquiry into the decline of BC sockeye salmon wrapped up its special three-day hearing into the potentially deadly virus known as infectious salmon anemia or ISA this week.

Multiple tests of various Pacific salmon stocks have tested positive for the virus. It’s not harmful to people but it has devastated fish farm industries on Canada’s Atlantic Coast, as well as Chile and Norway.

Federal scientist Kristina Miller, who was muzzled earlier this year, told the Cohen Commission she had tested frozen samples of sockeye as far back as 1986, which showed the ISA virus.

She also found heart-skeletal muscular inflammation, caused by the piscine reovirus, in both farmed chinook and wild sockeye.

The ISA virus is believed to have caused 10 per cent of the mortality in Chilean farms.

The findings have led to a crisis of confidence in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said Dr. Craig Orr, the executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society and an observer at the inquiry.

“All through this inquiry, it’s been very clear that DFO is in a conflict of interest position,” Orr told the News in a telephone interview Monday.

The department’s mandate is split between promoting salmon farming and protecting wild fish, he said.

Not only has the department denied the results from independent labs, but it has muzzled its own scientists.

The inquiry was shocked to hear the ISA virus has been found in Pacific salmon before.

“It was also found in 2002 and 2003 and was never reported to anyone,” said Orr. “That was a leaked document, a paper, that was prepared for publication in 2004. One of the authors on it, Dr. Simon Jones from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans … did not allow that manuscript to go forward because he felt that the samples were contaminated.”

Bad science and degraded samples was the same refrain used by the department and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in November when the most recent ISA findings were reported.

The food inspection agency, which has also testified at the inquiry, warned about the consequences that could come with this negative coverage of Canada’s fish farms.

“It could lead to trade sanctions against Canada, especially for commercial fish,” Orr reported from the agency’s testimony. “They’re very, very, very concerned that that doesn’t happen. But a lot of people are saying, ‘What are we here to protect?’ There seems to be a bit of a duel here. Farms are notorious for concentrating fish. They make ideal places for concentrating viruses and serving for places where viruses are mutated into more and more lethal forms.”

But despite the focus on southern B.C. fish farms, the North is just as vulnerable, said Orr.

“If people in Alaska and Yukon think they’re immune, they better rethink,” he said. “There’s a strong hope that we can expand salmon farming all up the coast of British Columbia and these artificial and political borders don’t preclude transfers of disease.

“We’re causing environmental damage. There’s no question of the weight of studies around the world that suggest significant damage from farmed salmon.”

Orr and others who have been following the inquiry hope the report and recommendations that come out of it cause significant changes in the surveillance of disease in both wild and farmed fish as well as the independence of science.

“Canadians, in particular, are saying, ‘This is just ridiculous,’” said Orr.

The science is conflated with politics in British Columbia, he said. “There’s no question about that. If you’re not a good-company scientist saying what the government wants you to say, you’re not going to get funded. The game needs to change.”

As for DFO, “They have a lot of great scientists,” Orr added. “They just need to be set free.”

The Cohen inquiry started in 2010. Its final report is expected to be released in June, 2012.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at