Date Posted: October 28, 2011
Print Edition: October 26, 2011
A disease deadly to Atlantic salmon was found in wild sockeye salmon for the first time on the BC coast last week. ISA, Infectious Salmon Anemia, spreads and mutates quickly and is known to wipe out fish stocks.
The discovery comes at a time when the decline of the sockeye is being examined. It is a crucial piece of evidence that condemns the BC government’s inaction to prevent the decline of the wild sockeye – or even acknowledge that they have the ability.
On November 5, 2009, the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River was federally appointed to investigate falling sockeye numbers. The sockeye run began to decline noticeably in the mid 1990s. In 2009, numbers were alarming. The run was at its lowest since 1947, with 10.5 million expected to return, but only 1.5 recorded returning post-season.
Heard by the Honourable Bruce Cohen, Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, the inquiry is mandated to look at the current state of sockeye stocks, investigate into the causes of decline, make long-term projections of the stocks and look at ways to improve future sustainability.
There are 50 groups, sharing 21 groups of standing, with a direct interest in the sockeye, who are involved in these discussions. First Nations groups, government, commercial and recreational fishing groups, and conservation organizations are taking the stand to voice their scientific findings and opinions.
The declining numbers are ominous, especially with the recent discovery of ISA. What’s more is the disturbing lack of agreement—even courtesy—within the groups at the Cohen Commission. Something is wrong.
It was a highly publicized incident when Department of Fisheries and Oceans research scientist Kristi Miller, who headed a $6 million government funded salmon-genetics project, was muzzled. Though her research was eventually released, the attempt of the government to silence their own scientists is suspicious.
Miller’s findings were this: a mysterious virus is evidently killing huge numbers of salmon before they reach their spawning grounds. It is an unknown virus, possibly associated with leukemia, which can be transmitted from fish to fish. Even after the release, the DFO prevented her from attending meetings on the sockeye crash, would not let her speak to the media, and we learned in her testimony at the Inquiry that DFO has not given her any funds for further sockeye research.
The issue of disease and viruses as the chief cause of the salmon population decline is the main source of conflict between groups at the Cohen Commission. There is an obvious clashing of two notable groups: the BC government and the Aquaculture Coalition, a conservation group.
The BC government lists the decline as a result of climate driven oceanographic changes. They deny the significant contribution of falling numbers by gravel removal, forestry, urbanization, municipal waste water, pulp and paper effluent and mining effluent, and hydro and water temperature to the long-term decline or the sharp drop in 2009.
In the BC government’s written statement, posted on the official Cohen Commission website, they establish their findings to be that “the long-term decline in productivity is likely driven by mechanisms that operate on larger, regional spatial scales.”
On the other hand, the Aquaculture Coalition is adamant that the decline is driven by disease, disease that burgeons and festers in the unhealthy environment of fish farms, and passes to nearby wild salmon. There is undeniable evidence: fish farms were introduced in the Fraser sockeye migration route in 1992; declining rates began in 1995. The conditions are ideal in fish farms for the transmission of disease. The dense populations of one species, feeding on an unnatural diet, exposed to the same environment create conditions for disease and parasite growth. The open nets make disease easily transmittable to passing wild salmon.
In the Aquaculture Coalition’s written submission, they say that the introduction of fish farms caused “a massive change in the ecosystem for the Fraser sockeye. Fish farms magnify endemic disease, increase exposure to disease for Fraser sockeye, and create the conditions for the emergence of new diseases.”
The BC government denies this, saying “it is unlikely that diseases or sea lice from aquaculture farms contributed to the long term decline of productivity of Fraser River sockeye salmon.”
Yet the recently discovered disease being carried by the sockeye was also labeled by the BC government as ‘unlikely.’ The statement, issued at the Commission prior to the discovery of ISA infections in sockeye is as follows: “The Aquaculture Coalition has raised infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) as an issue in the proceedings, and relies upon nonspecific symptoms of sinusoidal congestion in Dr. Marty‘s pathology reports. ISA is a disease that has never been diagnosed by any qualified individual in British Columbia despite extensive screening… in any event, ISA does not cause disease in sockeye salmon.”
But here we have the disease discovered in sockeye. The BC government’s conclusion about the cause of the decline, then, should be scrutinized. The causes are broad, spanning a large area; it comes to be a diffusion of responsibility. Even the word choice, “driven by mechanisms on larger, regional spatial scales,” sounds like something beyond our control, something vague and mysterious. The government attributes it to the inevitable, large-scale force of global warming, that would take changes from every country. What actions would the government have to take if Cohen accepts their conclusion? In reality, they would do nothing. And they’re fighting hard for that.
Alexandra Morton, part of the Aquaculture Coalition, tracks the Commission in her blog. Her entries reflect a frustration as the BC government dismisses her credibility as a self-trained scientist. She writes that “while the salmon farmers and DFO witnesses were allowed long answers, [she] was talked over by the lawyer of BC and told this was not an opportunity to make speeches.” As she tried to present evidence to Judge Cohen that there may be brain tumors in dying sockeye and there are strong linkages between the dying sockeye and a disease in farm salmon caused by Salmon Leukemia, government lawyers “refused to meet [her] on the battlefield, opting instead to throw rocks from the bushes,” attacking her education and qualifications.
In the BC government’s statement, they declare that “farmed salmon is a significant industry in British Columbia. It comprises 39 per cent of the total value of all seafood exports from BC, (worth $348.1 million in 2009), and directly and indirectly creates 6000 jobs.” That may be, but at a certain point you start to think, well too damn bad. Things have to change.
The Cohen Commission is bringing up some frustrating issues. The facts and arguments cast a doubtful light on the government. Is the DFO actually protecting the oceans, or are they defending a poor and unethical practice and treatment of wildlife? Their insistent arguments and rebuttals to the accusations of conservationists, their denial to even look properly into the subject matter is condemning and disappointing. If Alexandra Morton and the Aquaculture Coalition are right, things have to change drastically. But the government’s unwillingness is frightening. Something’s got to give, and what happens when it does?