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Salmon farms investigation hampered by incomplete government data

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 commission investigating the decline of sockeye salmon populations has been told the British Columbia government cannot provide complete electronic records on the health of fish on salmon farms.

That has sparked a showdown at the Cohen Commission over whether the government should be ordered to spend 10 weeks retrieving old paper records from storage, to see if the missing information exists.

In December, the commission directed the B.C. government to produce "documents relating to fish health, mortality and pathogens, including sea lice and disease," for 120 salmon farms located along the migration route of Fraser River sockeye.

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The commission is seeking the animal health records, from 2000 to 2010, to see if fish farms could be implicated in disease or sea lice outbreaks in wild salmon.

But Gary Marty, fish pathologist with the Animal Health Centre of the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, states in an affidavit that many electronic records do not identify the farms from which necropsy samples were taken.

"Without knowledge of the farm of origin, it is impossible to determine if the given farm is near or far from the sockeye salmon migration routes," Dr. Marty states.

The province is now seeking a "clarification" on the document disclosure order, arguing necropsy reports that don't identify the source farms won't be helpful to the commission, so need not be produced.

Dr. Marty says the province has 817 fish pathology reports for 2000 to 2002, but "no farm names for these 817 reports are identified in our database records. In addition, there are approximately 1,116 reports for the years after 2003 in the databases, and farms are identified in only a fraction of the records."

In a submission filed by Tara Callan of the Ministry of Attorney-General, the province says the paper records on which electronic data entries are based contain additional information, but they likely don't identify the farms either.

"Only a small fraction of the necropsy reports indicate which farm the salmon came from," Ms. Callan states. "As a result, these reports are of limited utility for statistical or epidemiological analysis."

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However, an affidavit filed by Stan Proboszcz, a biologist with Watershed Watch Salmon Coalition, argues all records, both electronic and paper, should be produced.

Mr. Proboszcz said he examined several paper files but is restricted in describing the contents because of a legal undertaking he signed.

"Accordingly, I am only prepared to say that for all the records that I reviewed ... the paper versions contained significantly more information related to fish health than their electronic counterparts," he states.

Brock Martland and Kathy Grant, both counsel for the Cohen Commission, state in a submission that the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association supports the provincial government application, because "the additional data on the paper necropsies is not useful to the commissioner without identifying the sources of the information ... [and]there is a significant risk that the production of this data will be misused by the participants opposed to the salmon farming industry."

Mr. Martland and Ms. Grant, who do not advocate for either side in the dispute, state that the province, the federal government and the BC Salmon Farmers Association have already produced significant fish health records, and "the outstanding materials, while potentially relevant, may add little if any additional value to any analysis undertaken by Commission researchers."

They add that Commissioner Bruce Cohen "appropriately has discretion to insist on full production, or to allow the province's application."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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