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Cohen called on to release information on salmon virus

A cutout of a sockeye salmon is raised above the crowd during a demonstration to coincide with the start of the Cohen Commission Inquiry into the 2009 decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday October 25, 2010.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

A federal public inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River has been accused of suppressing information that an infectious virus has been detected in British Columbia waters.

The concern is raised in letters to the Cohen Commission of Inquiry by Gregory McDade, a lawyer representing salmon researcher and anti-fish farm activist Alexandra Morton.

Officially the commission is not engaged with the issue, but the letters, obtained by The Globe and Mail, show that Ms. Morton's knowledge of the disease and a debate over the public's right to know about it has developed into a contentious issue behind the scenes.

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The commission suspended its hearings for the day on Tuesday for what spokesperson Carla Shore described as a routine all-counsel meeting to discuss legal housekeeping matters.

But sources say the issue up for discussion is the one raised by Mr. McDade's letters, in which he argues Ms. Morton should be released from the commission's undertaking of confidentiality.

The undertaking prevents participants in the hearings from making public any information they have obtained through disclosure. And with 390,000 documents and more than 188,000 e-mails disclosed so far, that means there is a mountain of material to keep secret.

Mr. McDade wrote that in combing through that vast volume of material, Ms. Morton came across "indications" a disease known as infectious salmon anemia virus, or ISA, may have been detected in fish samples tested by provincial government labs.

The suggestion is the symptoms of the disease were detected, but not the disease itself, which has never been reported on the West Coast. ISA can be lethal to Atlantic salmon, but Pacific salmon have proved immune to it in tests. The concern is that if the disease were present, it could change and begin to kill Pacific stocks.

"Canada and Canadians are obliged to report diseases of aquatic animals as a member of the World Organization for Animal Health," Mr. McDade wrote.

"There are approximately 35 indications of the existence of ISA identified in these records to date," he wrote. "Of great biological concern is that some of these diagnoses are in Pacific salmon, suggesting potential spread of a novel and virulent virus into native populations may be underway into the North Pacific."

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He asked that Ms. Morton be released from her undertaking so she can report her ISA concerns to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

"There is a very substantial public interest in ensuring full reporting of ISA indications. An ISA epidemic could prove devastating to wild salmon stocks. In our submission the public interest in proper reporting must outweigh the interest in confidentiality," Mr. McDade wrote.

The request was refused by commission lawyers - but neither the ruling nor Mr. McDade's application were released.

In a second letter Mr. McDade objected to the secrecy around the application and the ruling, saying it "is reminiscent of the criticisms of the Star Chamber. It is not appropriate to a public inquiry."

Mr. McDade wrote that British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, who is heading the inquiry, should hear submissions on the matter "in an open public setting."

He concludes by stating that the second letter, which was distributed to the more than 20 lawyers representing participants at the hearings, should not be covered by the undertaking because it does not contain any confidential documents.

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Mr. McDade did not return calls on Tuesday. Ms. Morton said because of the undertaking she cannot discuss her concerns.

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