Scientists who uncovered the first signs that infectious salmon anemia is present on the West Coast have found themselves shunned and intimidated by federal government officials, the Cohen Commission has heard.
Fred Kibenge, chair of the department of pathology and microbiology at the University of Prince Edward Island, said the credibility of his laboratory came under attack shortly after he reported getting two positive tests for the ISA virus in 48 sockeye salmon samples. Those samples were sent to him in October by a Simon Fraser University researcher, Rick Routledge, who was trying to figure out why so many salmon were dying on B.C.’s Central Coast.
Professor Routledge held a highly publicized press conference to announce the virus, which has triggered devastating disease outbreaks in Atlantic salmon farms in Norway and Chile, had been found for the first time in B.C. waters.
Dr. Kibenge said shortly after SFU went public he was called by government officials who had questions about how his lab operated.
Dr. Kibenge told the Cohen Commission, which is inquiring into the collapse of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River, that he initially thought the CFIA was interested in finding how his lab could work co-operatively with a DFO lab they use for ISA testing, in Moncton, New Brunswick.
But he said after officials arrived, he realized they were really more interested in finding faults with his operation as a means to undermine the credibility of his ISA virus findings.
“You’ve been really quite attacked,” said Gregory McDade, lawyer for two conservation groups and Alexandra Morton, a researcher and salmon farm critic.
“Yeah, I would say that, but I can understand where the government is coming from,” replied Dr. Kibenge.
Entered as evidence at the commission was a CFIA audit, which found fault with Dr. Kibenge’s lab, saying the “potential for cross contamination does exist” at his lab.
But Dr. Kibenge refuted that contention, saying the complaint was groundless and that he is confident his tests were not contaminated.
His lab is one of only a handful certified by the World Organization for Animal Health for ISA testing and he is a recognized expert on the virus.
Mr. McDade suggested to Dr. Kibenge that had he reported negative results for the ISA virus, he wouldn’t have been subject to any CFIA scrutiny.
“I agree, yeah,” he said. “Negative findings are very easy to deal with. . .it’s the positive findings that are difficult to accept.”
Dr. Kibenge’s lab in 2007 confirmed the first occurrence of ISA in farmed Atlantic salmon in Chile, where the virus triggered a disease outbreak that killed millions of salmon.
“The spread of diseases is the most feared threat to aquaculture,” he stated in a presentation on ISA that was filed as evidence.
Earlier in testimony Dr. Kristi Miller, head of molecular genetics for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at the federal Pacific Biological Station, said she has felt isolated within her own department since recently reporting multiple positive tests for the ISA virus.
Dr. Miller said that after the SFU press conference on ISA, she initiated her own research, and quickly found the sequence for the virus in both farmed and wild salmon.
But she said officials in Ottawa weren’t happy to learn she had been doing the research on her own initiative, and she soon felt shunned.
“I’m pretty alienated in the department at the moment so the end result of all of this is I’m not included in any conversations about any of this [ISA research]” she said.
“Once I reported this information . . . nobody in the department talked to me about disease or ISA after that,” said Dr. Miller.
The Cohen Commission has also heard that Molly Kibenge, Dr. Kibenge’s wife, had found evidence of the ISA virus in 2002 and 2003 while doing research at the Pacific Biological Station. But DFO denied her request to publish that research, saying her findings were in doubt because another lab failed to repeat her findings.