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Fish being feed in an enclosed fish farm pen September 18, 2007 in BC. We visited a site where 75,000 Chinook are being held, until the new tanks are built.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The federal government is hampering scientific research on fish diseases by refusing to release all of the data gathered from salmon farms on the West Coast, a new report by the University of Victoria has concluded.

"The basic issue is that government fails to disclose exactly where diseases have broken out, and only releases such extremely generalized information when it's too late to be useful," the report says. "This needs to change."

B.C. has about 114 salmon farming sites, and they are required to report disease incidents. But while the Canadian Food Inspection Agency makes some of that data public, it withholds the specific locations of reports, and the data are released too slowly, the report states. "Public reporting of even the most serious reportable diseases is routinely delayed – and does not identify where the disease took place, other than to generally identify that it took place at some unspecified location in a named province," states the report by Sam Harrison, a law student, and Calvin Sandborn, legal director of UVic's Environmental Law Centre.

"Canadian independent scientists who want to research a disease outbreak get no useful information from these public reports," the study says. "The lack of site specificity and the delayed nature of the reporting make the information in the reports virtually useless to independent parties. … Unfortunately, this seriously limits society's ability to identify and contain disease outbreaks originating on fish farms."

Mr. Sandborn called it another example of how bad Canada's environmental laws are compared to those of other countries. "The Norwegian companies that run B.C. fish farms face full disclosure of disease outbreaks at their Norwegian operations – but in Canada, the government keeps such outbreaks secret," he said.

He called on Ottawa to match the data release standards in major fish farming countries such as Norway and Scotland.

Mr. Sandborn said the study was done on behalf of the Wuikinuxv First Nation, which is concerned that diseases may have spread from fish farms to wild stocks in its territory on the Central Coast.

"The Wuikinuxv are very concerned that they can't get the very kind of basic information about where disease outbreaks are happening, so there's no opportunity for independent scientists to look into the issues and to see if there is possible transmission to migrating wild salmon," he said.

Dave Rolson, fisheries manager for the Wuikinuxv, said there are "unconfirmed reports" infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) was detected in wild salmon that return to Owikeno Lake. And he said ISA was also reported among fish the Fraser Valley's Cultus Lake.

Although the two lakes are far apart, both have severely depressed sockeye runs, and Mr. Rolson said it raises questions about whether ISA is to blame and if it might have originated in farms. He said if the government released more immediate, site-specific data, First Nations in regions where a disease was reported could look for it in wild salmon. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency declined to make a spokesperson available, but said in an e-mail that while it has not seen the UVic report, the government agency "is committed to enhance transparency and will take the report's recommendations under consideration."Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said his group endorses the call to make disease data public.

"We support the release of fish health information. We've asked our regulator to release that information and we understand that DFO's working on releasing a greater detail of fish health information," he said. "Obviously the CFIA has their own release [standards] with respect to just certain diseases and we support being transparent and putting up the information for the public."