An independent British Columbia researcher is accusing the Canadian government of covering up years of positive tests for the potentially deadly Infectious Salmon Anemia virus.
“Fish disease has become a federal secret in Canada,” fish researcher Dr. Alexandra Morton said. “I believe it is because it is everywhere and no one wants to admit it.”
Canadian officials have refuted Morton’s claims.
In a letter to Fisheries and Oceans Canada Minister Keith Ashfield, Morton said the Canadian government’s lack of action has failed its constituency.
“This has unacceptable biological, economic, international and market implications,” Morton said. “So we have stepped into the void you created. We will form a plan when all our results are in and we will give you direction in the New Year. Salmon diseases are no longer a federal secret. We will protect our fish. We are not going to beg help from you any longer.”
Dr. Gary Marty, a fish pathologist for the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and the researcher who did the most recent ISAv test for the Canadian government, said Morton is not qualified to make the interpretations she does.
“She does not have advanced training in medicine or pathology,” he said. However, Marty said, he does have respect for “her powers of observation.”
“When she records something, I can use that, and helps me understand what is going on,” he said.
Activist scientist sounds the alarm
Morton is a researcher with the Raincoast Research Society. In her decades-long career as an activist scientist she has studied algal blooms and sea lice in BC waters and fought to end fish farms’ use of acoustic deterrence on sea mammals, including orca whales. Simon Fraser University awarded Morton and honorary doctorate of science.
Her 10-year-long study of sea lice, she said, prepared her for the ISAv fight. She said at first the Canadian government denied the sea lice problem. “Now it is very clear,” she said. So when she hears the government’s current denials of ISAv she said she believes she is seeing the same thing.
Recently Morton traveled to BC’s Fraser River, the site of a massive salmon collapse in 2009, to collect salmon samples to test for the virus. (The recent ISA scare prompted a commission looking into the Fraser River salmon collapse to reopen its investigation for three days in December to look into the possible role the virus may have had in the collapse. Find out more at www.cohencommission .ca)
Fraser River is located 600 kilometers south of River’s Inlet, the site where researchers found two sockeye salmon smolt in October that were suspected to carry the virus and possibly exhibiting signs of the disease.
Morton collected 10 salmon at Fraser River that had died before spawning. She sent the fresh samples to independent labs for testing.
“We found [the virus] in the heart of one of the coho and in the gills of a 25 pound king salmon,” Morton said. “This salmon was yellow.” She said she also found the virus in the gills of a chum salmon, and later in a sockeye.
“So far I’ve only got a positive test in salmon that have died before spawning, so you can’t call them healthy fish,” Morton said.
Morton sent her samples to independent testing facilities in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and Oslo, Norway. “I picked these labs because they are good at what they do,” Morton said. She said the scientists who tested her samples have received push back since releasing the results.
Morton said the Canadian government won’t acknowledge the results from the test she commissioned. Her explanation is not flattering to Canada’s leaders.
Morton said conflicting commercial interests may make the Canadian government hesitant to address the situation openly.
In Canada wild salmon are “in the way” of hydroelectric dams, resource development and fish farms, she said. Therefore, Morton said, she doesn’t think the government has much reason or impetus to respond. “Really, Canadian fish are dying due to a lack of political will,” she said.
Previous test by a post-graduate student researcher wasn’t published
This is not the first time a researcher has found the virus in Canada’s salmon. A post-graduate student named Molly Kibenge studied hundreds of salmon for the virus in 2004. Her results found 115 positive results for the virus in Pacific salmon out of a sample size of 460. The virus was found in 36 out of 116 chinook salmon tested, 15 out of 88 pink salmon and 64 out of 103 sockeye salmon. The test has been called into question because all 64 of the sockeye that tested positive came from the same location. The virus was also found in one Atlantic salmon out of a sample size of two.
Kibenge’s finding were initially not published.
However, with the recent possible instance of the virus, Kibenge asked Canadian officials to publish her original findings.
Her request was turned down due to ongoing tests and an ongoing inquiry into the Fraser River salmon collapse called the Cohen Commission, according to Dr. Simon Jones, Aquatic Animal Health Station.
“I will wait to hear the outcome of these processes before further discussion on a 7-year-old manuscript," Jones said.
Some of Kibenge’s results have been confirmed by the Atlantic Veterinarian College, according to Morton.
The most recent flare-up of public interest into the virus started in October of this year when the virus may have been detected in two juvenile sockeye salmon north of Vancouver Island at Rivers Inlet which empties into Queen Charlotte Sound.
Several species of salmon and trout can carry the deadly virus without showing symptoms, according to a report by Iowa State’s Center for Food Security and Public Health.
Infected fish are highly contagious, whether wild of farmed, and can transmit the disease to and between Atlantic salmon with devastating effects. 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.
Although Pacific salmon may carry the virus without mortal effects, it is possible for a virus to undergo deadly mutations. The report’s authors compared this to outbreaks of highly virulent strains of avian influenza. ISA virus does not transmit to humans.
The 48 salmon smolt tested did not show signs of disease, said Dr. Ted Meyers, Chief Pathologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game in an earlier interview. They were collected for routine stomach analysis, he said. The test for infectious salmon anemia was secondary. “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.
Since that interview the Canadian government has conducted further tests. Researchers at the Canada Food Inspection Agency reported they did not find any sign of ISA virus in these tests.
“The virus is widely reported in Atlantic salmon stocks in Norway, so there is no reason it would not have come into BC in the tens of millions of eggs imported, Morton said. Unless we are very smart about this, use everything known and act wisely, we will pay the price,” she said.
Both Morton and Canadian officials are bewildered by the others’ findings.
The Canada Food Inspection Agency has not had a single positive test for the virus in over 7,000 tests in the last decade including 1,600 in 2011, much of which came in the last couple months.
“Yet,” Morton said “I’m finding it all over the place.”
Morton believes the lack of government findings is due to the testing procedure it uses. “If it mutates a little you won’t be able to detect the virus,” she said.
Canadian government finds no virus
Marty, the a fish pathologist for the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, said Morton’s claims are off base. He uses as an example Morton’s claim that the 2,000 “classic ISAv” lesions — Marty says it is closer to 1,300 — found in Department of Fish and Oceans routine salmon testing are proof of government incompetence.
He compared Morton’s attribution of the lesions to ISAv to blaming a dry cough on Avian influenza.
“Just because these fish have a common symptom doesn’t mean they have an uncommon, in the Pacific, disease,” Marty said. “What is a very mild change Morton attributes to a severe disease brought on by this virus.”
However, Marty said the finding should not be dismissed. “Some of those are real lesions, something is happening here,” he said.
Is it ISAv?
“If [World Organization for Animal Health] can detect it, we should be able to detect it,” Marty said.
Marty also said it is too early to announce the World Organization for Animal Health’s finding.
“What we have is some positive PCR tests,” Marty said. “It’s easy to get a false positive.”
Researchers use the polymerase chain reaction test to detect viruses like ISAv. It is the test Marty used to produce his negative ISAv results. However, Marty said the tests detects “only a very small segment of the entire virus genome — they do not detect the entire genome.”
Therefore a second procedure is needed to sequence a complete genome to determine if the “piece of (genetic material) detected by the test really is the virus as opposed to some other material that also contains the same small piece of (genetic material).
Marty warns that PCR tests are highly sensitive and contamination might occur.
“When I see PCR positive results for a disease not known to be in BC, in a species not known to be susceptible to the disease, and the fish had no clinical signs (or “classic lesions”) of the disease, I suspect that the PCR results are false positives until proven otherwise,” he said.
Marty said researchers need to be cautious with reacting to preliminary findings. There is no cure for salmon anemia and decimation is only option to stop the spread of the disease in Canada’s farmed Atlantic salmon population.
“Some of these farms have millions of stock,” Marty said. “You’d pretty much have to cull them all.”
Fish farmers have learned to live with the virus in recent years.
“When you have well-managed fish populations even when they get really highly virulent forms of ISA it doesn’t‚ result in much mortality.” ISA is kind of like a flu virus and behaves very much like that.
Chile’s production is going back up to its pre-breakout production of Atlantic salmon, Marty said. Norway and Chile control ISA through vaccination.
High costs from Chilean outbreak
“Maine spent $8 million unsuccessfully trying to get rid of it. Chile lost $2 billion to ISA virus, recently, some industry insiders say, because they did not act fast enough,” Morton said.
“When I read about Chile I feel like we are marching down the road again.”
In the beginning, they said things like, “Looks like ISA, but we can’t get it in all the tests, and it looks different than Norway.” Nobody was prepared for how fast it spread.”
Morton recommends Alaska test its major rivers and hatcheries for ISAv and put pressure on the Canadian government.
Alaska has an advantage in the ISA fight due to its concerned D.C. Delegation, Morton said.
“Let’s check the hatcheries, let’s check the fish farms, let’s find out what this thing really is and what is going on.”
“I know Alaska a doesn’t want to be an ISA zone,” Morton said. “But it can not ignore it.”
“It’s containable if you catch it before it becomes virulent. If it mutates and starts killing salmon all we can do is sit back and watch it rip through the population,” Morton said. “If we don’t do everything we can, then we deserve what we get.
• Contact Russell Stigall at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2276.