For ten years, Kristi Miller-Saunders could not fully disclose the results of her study that showed a virus spreading among fish-farmed salmon in British Columbia.
The federal Fisheries Department in the government of Stephen Harper would not release the 2012 report into open-net fish farms, a position that continued with the Trudeau government.
In March, the federal Information Commissioner ordered the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to release the information that found pathogens among open-net fish farms in the province. The commissioner ruled that suppressing publication of the document was not justified. “The complaint is well-founded,” the commissioner said of a request to access the material.
Dr. Miller-Saunders, who was a key author of the 2012 report, expressed frustration that it took until March of this year for the findings to finally surface. The study found that fish-farmed salmon suffered from jaundice and anemia because of the highly contagious Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV). This virus is associated with organ failure in chinook although it is not considered harmful to humans.
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“It is really a travesty that the study could not come to light 10 years ago, and that the findings associated with this virus have been so contentious in Canada, as the role that this virus plays in disease development in salmon in other countries is not disputed,” Dr. Miller-Saunders, a senior research scientist in salmon genetics at the DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.
“This study marked the first discovery of PRV in North America, and the first study to associate this virus to disease in a Pacific salmon species,” she wrote.
This week, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said that the report was provided on March 18 to counsel for the B.C. organization Wild First, which filed an access-to-information request for the document in 2014. Wild First supports efforts to transition away from open-net fish farms in coastal waters.
A copy of the research was also provided to the Office of the Information Commissioner.
Dr. Miller-Saunders noted in her statement that there were disagreements among the groups participating in the study.
Kevin Lemkay, the communications director for DFO, said in a statement Wednesday that under the Aquaculture Collaborative Research and Development Program all authors must agree to the contents of the paper before it is released.
Asked about the delay in releasing the report, Wild First spokesperson Tony Allard said in a statement that the situation raised concerns about the mismanagement of wild Pacific salmon as federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray faces major decisions on aquaculture in British Columbia.
On her appointment as Fisheries Minister last December, Mr. Trudeau asked Ms. Murray to continue work with the B.C. government and Indigenous communities on a “responsible plan” to transition away from open-net salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025. She was also asked to introduce Canada’s first-ever Aquaculture Act. Both issues were covered in the minister’s mandate letter.
The 2012 study was funded by parties including DFO, a research initiative called Aquaculture Collaborative Research and Development Program and Creative Salmon Ltd., a salmon producer.
Federal NDP Fisheries critic Lisa Marie Barron said on Wednesday that the situation is striking.
“It’s disheartening to see that information so vital to making decisions that will protect our wild salmon and ecosystems has been suppressed for so long. I am not overly surprised to see the contents in this report,” Ms. Barron said in an interview on Wednesday.
Dr. Miller-Saunders has worked with DFO for about a quarter century, and has previously expressed concerns about recent assessments by the department that concluded that the risk of pathogens transferring from salmon fish farms to wild stocks in B.C’s Discovery Islands – an archipelago in the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland – pose a minimal risk.
Dr. Miller-Saunders said PRV continues to be identified as a threat to wild Pacific salmon, notably Chinook and coho, and a transmission risk between farmed and wild salmon.
“Moreover, sequence epidemiology, similar to what has been done to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in humans, shows that the virus originated in Norway and spread to North America some 30 to 35 years ago, and is being actively transmitted between farmed and wild salmon in B.C.,” she wrote in her statement.
Asked about the study, the BC Salmon Farmers Association said they support the dissemination of sound science.
“We encourage industry-related information to be released in the context of a peer-reviewed published paper, rather than an ad hoc release of information through [access to information],” spokesperson Michelle Franze said in a statement on Wednesday.
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