Senators: Don't trust Canada, U.S. must test for salmon virus.

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle PI

The U.S. government should independently test samples of West Coast fish found with infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, rather than trusting Canadian government scientists, senators from Washington and Alaska said in a letter Wednesday.

"We should not rely on another government -- particularly one that may have a motive to misrepresent its findings -- to determine how we assess the risk ISA may pose to American fishery jobs," said the letter, signed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, both D-Alaska.

The letter was sent as a Canadian laboratory confirmed the presence of ISA in the gills of a Chinook and a chum salmon taken Oct. 12 in British Columbia's Fraser Valley, not far north of the Washington-Canada border. Infectious salmon anemia had earlier been established in a Coho salmon taken the same day.

"The chum was silver-bright and likely just arrived in the river. The Chinook was severely jaundice. Did these two fish just become infected and is that why it was only detected in their gills?" independent B.C. marine biologist Alexandra Morton asked on her blog.

Morton helped collect the fish, which were sent for evaluation to the World Animal Health reference laboratory for the ISA virus, on Prince Edward Island.

Morton reported that the ISA virus in sockeye salmon smolts -- taken 400 miles north at Rivers Inlet on the British Columbia coast -- has been confirmed by scientist Dr. Arne Nylund of the University of Bergen in Norway.

In southern Chile, infectious salmon anemia has decimated fish being raised in salmon farming pens. During the 1990s, an outbreak in New Brunswick, Canada, forced the killing of millions of salmon in pens in an effort to control the disease.

The West Coast still supports major Atlantic salmon fisheries, despite the depletion of fish stocks by dam construction, overfishing and (particularly in British Columbia) destructive logging practices.

The undammed Fraser River in B.C. is home to four of the world's greatest sockeye salmon runs. Southeast Alaska is a major commercial salmon fisheries center. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars seeking to restore dam-decimated salmon runs of the Columbia and Snake rivers.

A major milestone for salmon came in September. The U.S. government began taking down two dams on the Elwha River -- built, illegally, without fish ladders -- that destroyed the Olympic Peninsula's greatest salmon stream.

But in their letter Wednesday, Cantwell, Murkowski and Begich urged the U.S. government to obtain samples from the two infected Rivers Inlet sockeye smolts and "run independent diagnostic tests to confirm the presence of the ISA virus in British Columbia."

"The threat of a potentially devastating infectious salmon virus needs an immediate federal response," they argued.

A spending bill passed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday includes an amendment, sponsored by Cantwell and other West Coast senators, calling for federal agencies to evaluate whether West Coast and Alaska salmon runs are susceptible to the ISA virus, and put together action plans.

The senators' letter stressed the necessity for vigilance.

"We sincerely hope that the recent detection of ISA in Pacific salmon turns out to be a false alarm," wrote Cantwell, Murkowski and Begich. "However, waiting for even more red flags to appear would be irresponsible.

"We know that ISA has catastrophically impacted salmon industries around the world, costing tens of thousands of jobs abroad, and the the virus is virtually impossible to eradicate once it has spread within an area.

"We urge you to act now to prevent a similar catastrophic outbreak in the salmon populations of the Pacific Northwest."

Salmon farming along the British Columbia coast has expanded with encouragement from both Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the B.C. provincial government.

The Canadian federal fisheries department is in a contradictory role. It is charged with safeguarding wild salmon stocks, while also serving as defender and advocate of the salmon farming industry.

The DFO has been criticized -- Morton is the most prominent critic -- for failing to aggressively pursue evidence that sea lice from farmed salmon were decimating wild runs of pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago. The archipelago is located between the B.C. mainland and northern Vancouver Island.

In her Wednesday blog post, Morton suggested that the Fraser Valley salmon could have become infected when they migrated past Atlantic salmon pens near the Campbell River on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

Morton had her own recommendations of how to deal with the possible outbreak of infectious salmon anemia, which included:

  • the establishment of an international board to evaluate evidence of a possible West Coast outbreak;
  • setting up a laboratory in British Columbia to test fish possibly infected with ISA, instead of shipping tissue off to Prince Edward Island or Norway;
  • conducting tests of salmon up and down the West Coast, from the waters of southeast Alaska to rivers in northern California;
  • and conducting tests in every British Columbia salmon farm that is raising Atlantic salmon.

Nyland, at the University of Bergen, found the Rivers Inlet samples in poor condition and difficult to test.

"We are on a steep learning curve here, having never deal with viruses," wrote Morton. "Keeping the samples in a home-type freezer was not optimal."

And, she added: "The good news is that the levels of ISA virus detected in all these salmon has been low."