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Director of the of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Bob Cole unhooks a salmon near Port Alberni August 1, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Director of the of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Bob Cole unhooks a salmon near Port Alberni August 1, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Mark Hume

Food agency's handling of salmon-virus scare commendable Add to ...

When avian influenza was detected in the Fraser Valley a few years ago, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency moved quickly to contain it, bringing in a 100-member emergency response team and imposing harsh measures.

That crisis is worth recalling now that concerns have been raised about the way the federal government is handling reports that infectious salmon anemia may be present in British Columbia.

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The CFIA has been trying to allay fears about ISA (an Atlantic salmon disease which could be devastating if it got into Pacific salmon) in news conferences held jointly with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the B.C. government.

Officials say recent tests by a Simon Fraser University researcher, which had indicated the disease is present on the West Coast, have not been verified.

“There are no confirmed cases of the disease in wild or farmed salmon in B.C.,” declared Con Kiley, director of CFIA’s national aquatic animal health program, during a teleconference on Friday.

That sounded pretty much like what he said a few weeks earlier, at a similar press event, when he declared after preliminary results: “There’s no evidence that ISA virus occurs in fish off the waters of British Columbia.”

The ISA alarm was sounded in October, when Rick Routledge, a professor at SFU, reported that two samples from 48 salmon had tested positive for ISA.

Prof. Routledge, who was researching sockeye salmon populations on B.C.’s Central Coast, had sent heart tissue to Fred Kibenge, who runs one of the top ISA labs in the world, at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Dr. Kibenge’s two positive hits for ISA were the first reported cases of the virus in Pacific salmon, and it raised alarms all along the West Coast, from Alaska to California.

While ISA is not known to be fatal to Pacific salmon, which have survived after being infected in lab tests, it is lethal to Atlantic salmon, and has been responsible for massive fish kills in farms around the world, most notably in Chile.

Fish farm critics were quick to pounce on the SFU news, saying it was proof the aquaculture industry, which mostly grows Atlantic salmon, had imported a disease which could mutate and destroy wild West Coast stocks.

When the CFIA announced its own tests had failed to confirm Dr. Kibenge’s results, the blogosphere promptly lit up with allegations of a government cover-up.

“At a news teleconference hosted by the Three Wise Monkeys of the CFIA, Department of Fisheries & Oceans (DFO) and The Province the mantra adopted was ‘see no evidence of ISA, hear no evidence of ISA, speak no evidence of ISA,’” stated the website, Super Heroes 4 Salmon, which often features people dressed up as comic-book characters, fighting to save salmon.

Alexandra Morton, a researcher and fish farm critic who had earlier termed Dr. Kibenge’s findings “cataclysmic,” was skeptical of the CFIA’s findings.

“I just don’t understand the government coming out and saying there’s no problem,” she said.

The CFIA called its second news conference after documents were leaked last week suggesting a researcher had detected the ISA virus in 117 fish sampled in 2002 and 2003 at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station.

The researcher who made those findings was Molly Kibenge, then a postdoctoral student, who is married to Dr. Kibenge.

She asked recently to have her findings released for publication, but Simon Jones, head of the aquatic animal-health section at PBS, refused, saying her results had not been confirmed in subsequent tests. So then – as now – there was conflicting scientific evidence regarding the presence of the ISA virus in Pacific salmon.

Some environmentalists smell a cover-up, and they think the CFIA is part of it. But given the CFIA’s track record in dealing with animal disease, that seems highly unlikely.

When avian influenza was detected in the Fraser Valley, the CFIA imposed strict bio-security standards and ordered the slaughter of 19-million chickens, ducks and geese. Those were hardly the actions of a government department that bows to industry. The man in charge then was Dr. Kiley.

The CFIA has no confirmed findings of the ISA virus in B.C. If it ever does get positive results, there is little doubt it will move with authority. Until then, Dr. Kiley’s calm, steady, scientific probing of the issue seems commendable.

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