A 'smoking salmon' report: Was deadly fish virus detected years ago?

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: SeattlePI.com

A 2004 draft manuscript, leaked out of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, indicates that the deadly infectious salmon anemia virus was identified eight years ago in coho, pink and sockeye salmon taken from southern British Columbia, Southeast Alaska and Bering Sea waters.

Testing done in 2002 and 2003 "lead us to conclude that an asymptomatic form of infectious salmon anemia occurs among some species of wild Pacific salmon in the north Pacific," said the manuscript. 

But a senior official at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently rejected a request to submit the manuscript for publication.

Its lead author was Molly Kilbenge, a scientist working out of the Canadian government's Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C. Three other authors were listed.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who received a copy of the manuscript on Tuesday, issued a strong call for cross-border cooperation and open access to fisheries research, saying:

"These troubling reports reinforce the need for a coordinated, multi-national strategy to control the spread of this virus threat. American and Canadian scientists need to have access to all relevant research on this deadly virus. We can't afford to leave the Pacific Northwest's fisheries jobs at risk."

The manuscript surfaced less than a month after disputed findings of the virus in fish taken from the Harrison River in B.C.'s lower Fraser Valley, not far from the Washington border, and juvenile sockeye collected at Rivers Inlet about 400 miles north on the British Columbia Coast.

Infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, is a severe disease of marine-farmed Atlantic salmon, characterized by anemia and hemorrhaging livers as well as kidney damage. 

"The disease has affected marine farmed Atlantic salmon in Norway since 1984. ... More recently, the disease has been diagnosed in marine farmed Atlantic salmon in Eastern Canada, Scotland, eastern USA (Maine), the Faroe Islands," says the manuscript.

The virus has also swept through salmon pens in Chile. 

The farming of Atlantic salmon is a big business in British Columbia. It has received strong support from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian federal agency that  also is charged with managing wild salmon stocks.

As they return to spawn in the Fraser River -- one of the world's greatest salmon streams -- fish pass close to major salmon farming operations in waters between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. Scientists worry that infected farmed fish are passing the virus on to wild salmon.

Cantwell, along with Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, issued a pointed letter after first reports that the ISA virus had been identified. The senators called for independent testing, resistant to manipulation by those with a vested interest in its outcome.

The 2004 manuscript has apparently not been submitted to or discussed by the Cohen Commission, a Canadian government inquiry charged with finding causes of the sudden, unexpected "crash" of Fraser River salmon runs two summers ago.

In a Nov. 4 letter, Kibenge asked the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or DFO, for permission to submit the 2004 manuscript for publication "as soon as possible." She wrote: "I would like to submit it to Diseases of Aquatic Organisms or Journal of Fish Diseases. What do you think?"

The permission to publish was denied in a letter from Simon Jones of the Aquatic Animal Health Section of the Pacific Biological Station, according to email documents obtained by seattlepi.com.

"You may recall that Fish Health staff at DFO disagreed that your data supported the conclusion that infectious salmon anemia virus, whether asymptomatic or otherwise, occurred in the salmon you examined," wrote Jones. "For example, all attempts to isolate the virus into cell culture failed."

As well, Jones said, Canada's federal inspection agency is conducting "confirmatory testing of more recent samples from Pacific salmon" where positive results for the virus were obtained.

"In addition, the Cohen Commission will reconvene for two days in December to hear evidence on ISA virus in British Columbia," Jones added. "I will wait to hear the outcome of these processes before further discussion on a seven-year-old manuscript.

"Consequently, I do not give permission to submit this work, whether in this manuscript or any other, for publication."

The manuscript may be out of the pen. In a Nov. 4 letter to Jones, the manuscript's co-author Fred Kilbenge said data from the document was being forwarded to the government, and added: 

"Our lab is currently making preparations for participation in this process and will disclose this work notwithstanding its age. I think that this historical data may also clarify some of the issues around recent ISAV testing in B.C."

The Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa has, in recent months, put tight restrictions on media access to scientists working on research projects for the Canadian government.

Salmon runs, of course, recognize no national boundaries.

Adult salmon from the U.S. and Canada grow to adulthood in waters of the Gulf of Alaska before returning to spawn in rivers of both countries. 

The Fraser River salmon runs use both Johnstone Strait in British Columbia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, en route home. The United States helped build fish ladders at Hells Gate, in the Fraser Canyon, that restored runs after landslides from railroad construction blocked their migration.

The U.S. still gets a percentage of the Fraser River catch. The two countries have productively cooperated in the past.

Former Gov. Gary Locke of Washington and Canada's then-Fisheries Minister David Anderson worked out an agreement in the late 1990s that preserved two key fish stocks.

During an unusually hot early summer, U.S. fishermen let pass sockeye salmon of the Early Stuart run, which migrates nearly 900 miles up the Fraser River system. In turn, Vancouver Island charter fishermen took fewer endangered Coho salmon bound for Northwest rivers.

Now, the leaked manuscript is likely to cause particular concern in two places: Southeast Alaska and Puget Sound.

Southeast Alaska has reacted with considerable hostility to expanded salmon farming in British Columbia, fearing the spread of disease. The farming industry has strongly defended its safety practices.

But the virus was also found in spawning sockeye headed for Cultus Lake, located in the Fraser Valley just north of the U.S.-Canada border.