Recently, Canada reopened a commission set up to investigate the collapse of a sockeye salmon run in British Columbia’s Fraser River in 2009. The Cohen Commission reopened for three days in December to hear testimony about the potential link of Infectious Salmon Anemia virus, or ISAv, to the collapse.
The commission was reacting to several reports of farmed and wild salmon testing positive for the infectious salmon anemia virus. The virus is known to be deadly to Atlantic salmon. British Columbia has an Atlantic salmon farming industry worth millions of dollars. Pacific salmon, like Alaska’s chinook, sockeye and coho, do not express symptoms of the disease.
However, scientists are concerned that the ISAv, an influenza-like virus, could mutate like its cousins avian influenza and swine flu.
The British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture has said that in more than 7,000 tests, the Canadian government has not found a single case of Infectious Salmon Anemia virus or symptoms of the ISA disease.
Whistleblowers at the Cohen Commission, however, dispute this, saying the government has known of ISAv in Canadian farmed fish since as early as 2004.
An email that surfaced during the hearings revealed AquaBounty’s Prince Edward Island facility in eastern Canada may have tested positive for Infectious Salmon Anemia virus, or ISAv in 2009. AquaBounty is the maker of AquAdvantage genetically engineered salmon.
In an email submitted to the commission, Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans reports a positive test for ISAv to the country’s Food Inspection Agency.
“On 25 November, 2009 samples obtained from a research facility at Fortune, Prince Edward Island tested positive for Salmon Anemia virus at our lab,” director of biotechnology and aquatic animal health science brand at Fisheries and Oceans Stephen J. Stephen of Ottawa wrote in an email to Dr. Brian Evans, chief veterinary officer for Canada’s Food Inspection Agency.
Activist and researcher Alex Morton said she has found ISAv in over a dozen wild and farmed salmon in the Fraser River. She said many of the salmon she had tested came from specimens that died before breading and showed signs of ISAv-related disease.
A post-graduate student named Molly Kibenge said she found the virus early as 2004.
Genetic engineering, or genetic modification, is the direct manipulation of an organism’s deoxyribonucleic acid — DNA. DNA’s double helix, discovered by Nobel Prize winners James D. Watson and Francis Crick, holds four bases, molecules with the names Adenine, Guanine, Thymine, Cytosine. Scientists manipulate the sequence of these bases to engineer new genetic information. In the case of the AquAdvantage salmon, the changes cause rapid growth. Bacteria were the first genetically engineered organisms, in 1973.
AquaBounty does not plan to raise its own salmon, preferring instead to sell its patented eggs to inland farms. However, the biotech firm raised AquAdvantage salmon for research at its facility on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada.
AquaBounty’s facility was reported to raise Atlantic salmon crossed with Pacific chinook salmon and a northwest Atlantic ocean pout. The engineered salmon adopts some of the genes the pout uses to make its antifreeze to keep its chinook growth hormone running.
The biotech firm says its facilities are isolated inland — AquaBounty also sends eggs to Panama for grow-out research.
As an added precaution to keep its product from escaping into the wild, AquaBounty said its genetically modified Atlantic salmon would be 98 percent female, lowering the chance of reproduction in the wild.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing nearly $500,000 to attempt to improve on that 98 percent.
“This project would research technologies that would render fish sterile to decrease the risk of gene flow from transgene fish,” according to the USDA.
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.