My Turn: We need answers from Canada about fish virus control plans

While fishermen are alarmed to learn about the finding of a European virus in two wild British Columbia sockeye salmon, the news comes as no great surprise. Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) has erupted in every country that farms salmon. Why would anyone think Canada is immune? It was just a matter of time.


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. 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.

As the representative of Alaska fishermen who rely exclusively on the health of wild fish, I am appalled by the near-silence of the Canadian agencies responsible to protect them. I’ve reserved comment in hopes that they would send some signal to the public, and West Coast fishermen in particular, that Canada is proactively engaged with a ‘fish first’ attitude.

On Oct. 21 — more than a week after ISA was detected in B.C. salmon — Canadian officials issued a press release devoid of any sense of urgency. Canada announced they will run more tests, wait several weeks for results, and only then, if additional testing reveals ISA, stakeholders will be convened to “identify and take appropriate next steps.”


It’s sound practice to verify a diagnostic result, particularly one with significant ramifications. What seems beyond the pale is the decision to wait weeks before convening the experts to develop a plan of action. It’s incredible there wasn’t a contingency plan in place long before the first farmed fish was placed in an ocean net pen.

At minimum, you’d think the Canadian government would try to assure us, by pointing to the experts they immediately pulled together to brainstorm how to evaluate the extent of the problem and methods to contain and control it. Instead, in his opening response to questions from the B.C. Legislature, Minister of Agriculture and Lands Don McRae quipped, “Well, we’ve got another example of spinning media headlines and fearmongering from the opposition.” Not exactly re-assuring.

Dr. Frederick Kibenge, the scientist who diagnosed ISA in British Columbia, is the same doctor who heads the World Animal Health Organization (OIE) lab specializing in ISA. He has both studied and diagnosed ISA outbreaks, most notably in Chile, where it was found in both Pacific and Atlantic salmon. In 2007, ISA wiped out 70 percent of Chile’s farmed salmon production. I find it strange that fisheries officials seem to downplay the findings of this respected scientist, as opposed to fast-tracking a more comprehensive investigation.

Dr. James Winton, fish health section chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Fisheries Research Center, has conducted much of the research on ISA. He co-authored a paper in 2003 that showed Pacific salmon less susceptible to ISA than Atlantics, but included was a cautionary note, that the threat to Pacific salmon should not be ignored, since viruses often adapt. Winton has described last week’s ISA finding as a “disease emergency” with “global implications.”

Alaska Trollers Associations appreciates the fast response of Congress, led by Senators Maria Cantwell, Lisa Murkowski, and Mark Begich, directing federal agencies to assess ISA risk to Pacific salmon within six months. However, if steps are not immediately taken to gather data on the situation at hand and inform the deliberative processes in both the U.S. and Canada, time will be lost as we search for ways to protect wild fish. The clock is ticking.

Canada needs to explain to the public precisely what it is doing to monitor and enforce biological safeguards on the fish farm industry. Canada and the U.S. have a responsibility to protect the wild public resources they hold in trust for us all.

• Kelley is the executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.


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