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Salmon virus allegations elicit B.C. ire

Posted: December 7, 2011 - 1:04am

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently said that its continued testing of BC salmon has not turned up the deadly and highly-infectious Atlantic salmon virus.

“Based on the final results, there are no confirmed cases of the disease in wild or farmed salmon in BC,” according to the Agency. The Agency did not release the raw data from their tests.

Canadian researchers reported in October that they may have detected Infectious Salmon Anemia in wild sockeye salmon on the Pacific coast of British Columbia.

Infected fish are highly contagious, whether wild of farmed, and can transmit the disease to and between Atlantic salmon with devastating effects. Pacific salmon can carry the virus, but do not as of yet show symptoms of the disease, according to a report by Iowa State’s Center for Food Security and Public Health. The disease, also known as hemorrhagic kidney syndrome, can be difficult to detect in fish farms and can cause nearly 100 percent mortality. There is no treatment.

Early reports claimed the virus was detected in two juvenile sockeye salmon collected for routine stomach analysis north of Vancouver Island at Rivers Inlet, which empties into Queen Charlotte Sound. However, the sockeye did not show signs of disease. Alaska scientists advised calm.

Alaska is at less of a risk than states and countries home to salmon farms, said Dr. Ted Meyers, Chief Pathologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The state has no salmon farms and bans importation of outside stocks of salmon, including Atlantic salmon.

“We are concerned and we want to see further testing, but it is an Atlantic virus and Pacific salmon are resistant to this virus. So it is not time to panic,” Meyers said.

Dr. Adam Moles, a research biologist parasitologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, agrees. He said that the sample size that may have tested positive was small.

However, “finding [infected salmon] 60 miles from the nearest salmon farm, in the middle of nowhere, really perked our ears up,” he said. There doesn’t appear to be any localized cause, like an Atlantic salmon farm nearby. If the positive results are confirmed, Moles said, he worries that finding the virus in the middle of the ocean might indicate that it is more widespread.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported a preliminary 2011 salmon harvest of more than 800 million pounds worth $600 million.

Meyers’ and Moles’ advice was well founded, according to Canadian officials.

“In recent years, over 5,000 fresh, properly collected and stored samples have been tested and there has never been a confirmed case of ISA in British Columbia salmon,” said Keith Ashfield, Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

“After Canada’s reputation has needlessly been put at risk over the past several weeks because of speculation and unfounded science, additional in-depth, conclusive tests, using proper and internationally recognized procedures, are now complete and we can confirm that there has never been a confirmed case of ISA in BC salmon, wild or farmed.”

Canada’s statement comes a week after information was release that the Canadian government may have hidden evidence of a scientist’s discovery of more than 100 farmed Atlantic salmon infected with a similar virus in B.C. waters 10 years ago.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski recently asked the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration what the U.S. knew about the decade-old discovery, and how it and this more recent scare will affect plans to expand testing efforts.

“Weeks ago, I was troubled to hear of the possibility of infectious salmon anemia in nearby fisheries. But now I am absolutely alarmed that this was not the first our neighbors to the east had heard of this, and had sat on critical information for 10 years — putting us 10 years behind in addressing this situation.”

Murkowski’s office said the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association plans to update the senator on Thursday.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency did not directly address the allegations of a cover-up. However, the agency said that “over a decade of testing has revealed no positive test for Infectious Salmon Anemia virus.” It went on to say that its review of the salmon farming industry’s testing program “found that there has been a significant amount of testing for viral diseases, including infectious salmon anemia, in farmed fish over the last 10 years.”

Over a decade ago now, Alaskan commercial fishermen caught more than 20 Atlantic salmon near Ketchikan, according to an Associated Press report from August 2000. A week prior, 35,000 farmed Atlantic salmon escaped from a pen off the northern tip of Vancouver Island, the report continued.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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