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Fisheries and Oceans researcher Kristi Miller still not talking

Several months after her work first created a buzz at a public inquiry examining the disappearance of millions of Fraser River sockeye, Kristi Miller – still not talking to the media – appeared at a Cohen Commission hearing.

The molecular genetics researcher for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was accompanied by an earpiece-wearing security guard as she watched the proceedings Tuesday from the front row. She is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

Ms. Miller had a paper published in the prestigious journal Science earlier this year and pointed to the possibility salmon leukemia was to blame for the decline of Fraser River sockeye – a collapse the Cohen Commission was set up to investigate.

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Fisheries and Oceans usually promotes interviews when one of its researchers receives international praise but all requests to speak with Ms. Miller after the study was published have been denied, a move recent reports have suggested was by order of the federal government.

The inquiry has been a low-key affair to date, but Ms. Miller's testimony is expected to create a media frenzy, in part because it seems an effort was made to keep her research under wraps.

With a security guard sitting to her right, Ms. Miller watched as two of her department colleagues testified on Tuesday. Word of the researcher's arrival quickly spread through the crowd.

Approached for an interview after the hearing, Ms. Miller said she couldn't talk with reporters prior to taking the stand. A Fisheries and Oceans spokeswoman quickly arrived to reiterate that point.

Asked about the guard, the spokeswoman said it's quite stressful for DFO employees to testify and the department simply wants to make sure they feel comfortable. But when she was asked if security guards were brought in for any of the other department employees who testified, the spokeswoman said no.

Ms. Miller's work created a splash at the proceedings in March. That's when Laura Richards, Pacific regional director of science for DFO, was asked about a series of e-mails that suggested Ms. Miller was not being allowed to talk to the media.

In a Nov. 2009 e-mail to Mark Saunders, manager of salmon and freshwater ecosystems division, Ms. Miller said she was being kept away from a science forum.

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"Laura [Richards] does not want me to attend any of the sockeye salmon workshops that are not run by DFO for fear that we will not be able to control the way the disease issue could be construed in the press. I worry that this approach of saying nothing will backfire," she wrote. "Laura also clearly does not want to indicate … that the disease research is of strategic importance."

Ms. Richards said Ms. Miller must have misinterpreted the situation and there was no attempt to silence her.

Tuesday was the second day of the commission's hearings on disease, a topic that will again be the focal point on Wednesday. The theme will shift to aquaculture later in the week.

Four experts addressed the commission and for the second consecutive day were asked about the possibility of farmed fish spreading disease to wild stocks. The experts testified the evidence of such a link is unclear.

The most tense exchanges were between lawyer Gregory McDade, representing a coalition of conservation groups, and Michael Kent, professor of microbiology and biomedical sciences at Oregon State University.

Prof. Kent was asked about a report he submitted on farmed fish to the commission. Mr. McDade suggested the professor refused to look at the topic of farmed salmon spreading disease to wild salmon. Prof. Kent said he chose not to explore that topic because he believed it was being examined in another report and denied any more nefarious reason.

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