Could salmon in the Fraser River be dying from damaged hearts?
That is a question the Cohen Commission is essentially being asked to consider in an application that seeks to have the hearings reopened so new information on an emerging fish disease can be examined.
The federal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River ended evidentiary hearings four months ago and staff are now busy working on the final report, which is due by Sept. 30.
But in a letter to the Cohen Commission this week, lawyer Gregory McDade, who represents the Aquaculture Coalition, asked that the hearings be resumed to hear "new information regarding the presence of piscine reovirus (PRV) and heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) in aquaculture salmon in British Columbia."
Alexandra Morton, an independent salmon researcher and anti-fish-farm activist, raised the disease issue recently, when she released laboratory tests that she said showed the presence of PRV in samples of B.C.-grown Atlantic salmon, collected in Vancouver supermarkets.
Ms. Morton, a member of the Aquaculture Coalition, claims the presence of PRV in B.C. farmed fish means HSMI may also be present and that it could have been transmitted to wild salmon.
"Developing research into the novel disease links HSMI to PRV and indicates that both cause high mortality," stated Mr. McDade. "In the course of its hearings, the presence and significance of HSMI and PRV in British Columbia were not explored."
In his application, Mr. McDade wrote that one witness, Dr. Kristi Miller, a Fisheries and Oceans scientist, had testified at the hearings that she had identified PRV in tests done on farmed Pacific salmon on the West Coast.
But no other witnesses testified on the issue and the implications of the disease were not examined by the Cohen Commission, stated Mr. McDade.
"The prevalence of this virus on the migration route is significant and potentially devastating for Fraser sockeye," he stated in his letter. "Damaged heart muscle could be contributing to the extremely high en route mortality recorded in Fraser sockeye."
In some years millions of sockeye salmon die in the Fraser River on their way to the spawning grounds. The in-river mortalities have long mystified fisheries scientists who have been studying the phenomenon.
"The Aquaculture Coalition submits that the Commission should receive new evidence regarding the epidemiology and impacts of PRV and HSMI in salmon populations on a global scale and should hear evidence regarding its presence in British Columbia," Mr. McDade stated in his letter.
"We have received the application and we are reviewing it," Carla Shore, a spokeswoman for the Cohen Commission, said Tuesday.
The Cohen Commission was appointed in 2009 after a catastrophic collapse of the sockeye run in the Fraser River. Evidentiary hearings ended last September, but then were resumed for three days, in December, to hear new evidence concerning another salmon disease, infectious salmon anemia, which had been detected in tests done by Simon Fraser University and Ms. Morton.