The ISA Virus, Cohen Inquiry and DFO - But What About the Fish?

Cohen Enquiryby Catherine Stewart

I have a t-shirt that reads "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." It's broadly applicable to the state of our world and particularly relevant following the revelations at the recent federal Cohen Inquiry hearings on the topic of Infectious Salmon Anaemia virus (ISAv).

Those of us attending the hearings in Vancouver were more outraged than we anticipated. All Canadians – all citizens of the planet – should be outraged by the behaviour of our federal government agencies in the face of this potentially disastrous virus.

The testimony of senior officials from Fisheries andOceans Canada (DFO) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) made clear their primary concern is apparently not the health of our fish stocks or the health of Canadians – but trade. Trade uber alles. The priority for notification and dialogue following positive tests for the virus was Canada's trading partners. Not First Nations, whose constitutionally recognized rights to salmon are acknowledged by the Supreme Court of Canada. Not commercial fishermen or concerned citizens or volunteers running salmon enhancement programs. Rather the information flow was directed at international buyers and sellers of farmed and wild salmon product.

The second federal priority was denial. Get the ducks in a row and attempt to undermine and disprove the laboratory findings indicating the presence of ISAv in Pacific salmon. Dr. Fred Kibenge, of the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island, testified that he felt under attack once the first positive tests were found by his lab and reported publicly by Simon Fraser University (SFU) Professor Rick Routledge. Kibenge is a globally recognized expert on ISA and his lab is the only one in North America certified by the World Animal Health Organization. Nonetheless, following the report of his findings, our federal agencies launched a "review" of lab procedures and Kibenge made it clear he felt particularly targeted.

Dr. Kristi Miller, Head of Molecular Genetics at DFO's Pacific Biological Station began running tests for ISAv following the first reports and stated under oath she felt alienated within the department and may have been excluded from further departmental discussions on the virus once she reported positive findings. She also noted it was clear no further discussion on ISA should take place over email. While Miller didn't offer a rationale, it was obvious to observers – emails can be accessed under freedom of information.

Denial has been the federal government's modus operandi since the initial findings of ISA were reported by SFU. I listened in on the first media briefing in response to the positive tests reports. Dr. Con Kiley of CFIA was emphatic in stating ISA is not present in BC, the positive tests by Dr. Kibenge could not be replicated by DFO's Moncton lab, and therefore the samples were all negative for ISA. On the same call, however, Dr. Peter Wright, Manager of DFO's National Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory in Moncton, who tested the samples seized from Kibenge and SFU's Routledge, stated that the samples were in such poor condition that "The fact that they come up negative doesn't really mean anything because they are so badly degraded."

Negative but Meaningless

Given that the director of their own laboratory publicly stated DFO's "negative" test results were meaningless, how could the Ministers of Fisheries and Agriculture issue a joint statement days later claiming there is absolutely no indication of ISA in BC's wild salmon? Dr. Miller's testimony shed some light on the word play behind the spin-doctoring. Miller noted that our government said there was "no ISA" but did not say there was no evidence of the "ISA virus." ISA is the disease and to date there is no conclusive evidence of salmon dying of a disease outbreak. The wording of the Ministers' statement was very carefully crafted to avoid outright lies while still delivering a reassuring message to trading partners.

Government agencies are being painted into corners though. Dr. Kim Klotins of CFIA testified the samples in their possession (seized from Dr. Routledge, Dr. Kibenge and Alexandra Morton) are all negative for the virus. Routledge and Morton have requested the samples be returned, but to date that request has been denied. Klotins stated the fish samples are all under quarantine to avoid any risk. But if they are negative for ISAv, why is quarantine necessary?

Trade in Denial

So trade, and trade in the language of denial, are clearly federal priorities. What about the fish? Will the Canadian government at least follow up on the very real potential that ISAv is present in BC? CFIA and DFO are jointly "working on" a surveillance plan, but it would be a stretch to call it a rapid response. They hope to have it in place by spring of 2012.

As for the surveillance plan itself, serious questions have been raised about the limitations of the current draft. For years, DFO has claimed that the Wild Salmon Policy (WSP) forms the cornerstone of management decisions for Pacific salmon. They are still "working on" implementation, but nonetheless it is (in theory) the guiding force behind decision making. EcoJustice, legal counsel for the Conservation Coalition, asked specifically if priority Conservation Units identified in the WSP were informing the surveillance plan.

Klotins of CFIA was not even aware of the existence of the Wild Salmon Policy. Stephen Stephen, Director of DFO's Aquatic Animal Health Branch testified he had "heard mention" of the Policy. EcoJustice noted that three of the four rivers identified as sampling sites were in the Skeena River watershed, far from any open net-cage fish farms and from the two locales where ISA-positive salmon were collected. Only one proposed sampling site, Weaver Creek, is part of the Fraser River system. In the first year of the two year draft Surveillance Plan, only 88 fish would be collected from Weaver Creek. DFO's Simon Jones agreed on questioning that was not an adequate sample size.

The concerns I've raised barely scratch the surface of the evidence and testimony arising during the three days of hearings:

  • We learned ISA was found in BC sockeye by researcher Dr. Molly Kibenge in 2002/03 and those findings were never revealed in prior DFO disease testimony;
  • We read an email from a BC CFIA staffer congratulating senior department staff on winning "the PR battle;"
  • We learned the testing methods for ISAv used by BC on farmed fish are not peer-reviewed or recognized by any of the expert scientists on the witness panel;
  • We heard that despite publicly promising to make farmed fish available for testing to Dr. Miller, the salmon farming industry reneged and refused her access;
  • We listened to Miller's testimony that one company – Creative Salmon – did allow testing of their fish, and 25 per cent were positive for ISAv.

That's just a sample of the shocking revelations. All of which contributed to the growing sense of outrage and the depth of the betrayal of Canadians by federal agencies entrusted to protect our interests.

So Now What?

The member groups of the Conservation Coalition, including the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR) of which Living Oceans is a member, are pressing for an independent, comprehensive and transparent assessment of ISAv in BC farmed and wild salmon.

We continue to demand the separation of science and politics, urging Justice Cohen to recommend the re-establishment of a Fisheries Research Board-type construct, free from the constraints of political and trade needs, to provide the best available scientific knowledge to inform decision-making.

DFO has a fundamentally conflicted mandate. They cannot adequately regulate the salmon farming industry while continuing to promote farmed salmon, subsidize the industry, and act as a global trade advocate for so-called "sustainable" farmed products.

Desmond Tutu once said, "I'm not an optimist, I'm a prisoner of hope." I remain hopeful that Canadians and every global citizen who cares about the survival of wild salmon will demand that our government start acting in the best interest of our fish and our future. Call your MP today.


Catherine Stewart is the Salmon Farming Campaign Manager for Living Oceans Society and testified as a witness at the Cohen Inquiry.

[From WS January/February 2012]

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