Virus affecting Pacific salmon

Wild juvenile salmon off the B.C. coast show evidence of virus

  • Nov. 9, 2011 8:00 a.m.

A threat has surfaced affecting Pacific salmon here in B.C., although it’s not a new one according to Rollie Rose, a fishing guide and director of the Juan de Fuca Salmon Restoration Society.

The Watershed Watch Salmon Society, a group of experts who advocate awareness and preservation of salmon, recently issued a press release indicating that Simon Fraser University researchers found evidence of a virus in wild juvenile sockeye off of B.C.’s central coast.

Called Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA), it can cause the circulatory system of the fish to stop working resulting in death. The WWSS is calling for a removal of farmed salmon — where the disease originates — from open-net cages in the province.

“The DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans), up until now, denied that the virus was in B.C. waters,” said Rose. “

“The disease has followed the fish farms everywhere they have set up shop and (is) why they are always on the move looking for new places to operate from.”

First discovered in Atlantic farmed salmon in Norway in the 1980s, ISA showed up in New Brunswick about a decade later. There have been more outbreaks in Scotland and Chile, as well. It is transmitted by contact and can survive in seawater. Likely sources are from infected live eggs or feed imported by the salmon farming industry, said the WWSS in the press release.

Rose said unlike avian flu, which can be contained by destroying a farm, if ISA gets into the water it is catastrophic.

“Once that disease gets into a wild population, the only way to stop the spread is to poison the river and kill them all,” he said.

“When you’ve got a wild thousand miles of ocean, how do you control it?”

Sockeye salmon are very sensitive to their environment, and during reproduction they stop eating and their immune systems shut down to conserve energy. Anything that imposes a further burden means they’re more than likely to die before they get to the spawning grounds, said Rose.

“My main comment is the DFO, their main reason for existence is right in their mandate. Number 1 — conservation of fish, to protect fish. (And) they’re not protecting fish.”

He said public awareness is critical, and that people should stop supporting the farmed fish industry. He is also pushing for a closed containment system where fish farms are located on land.

The WWSS concurred in the release, saying “net-cage salmon farming has threatened B.C.’s wild fish populations for too long, and this new threat emphasizes the dire need for the federal government to clear all farms from wild salmon migration routes immediately.”

Melanie McNabb, communications advisor at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said in an email that the Canadian Food Agency and FOC are “working diligently” to determine whether the evidence is valid. Tests will take approximately four to five weeks.

In the meantime, she referred to a statement issued by FOC Minister Keith Ashfield a little over a week ago.

“The recent reports stating the ISA has been found in British Columbia salmon have not yet been verified by federal officials through established processes,” said Ashfield in the statement.

“After initial investigations, we are concerned that proper protocols may not have been followed in the testing and reporting of these findings.”

The government is using “scientifically sound and internationally recognized procedures” to confirm the presence or absence of the virus, he said.

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