Salmon virus doesn't mess around, why does Canada?

While fishermen are alarmed to learn about the discovery of a European virus in wild British Columbia salmon, the news comes as no great surprise. Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) has erupted in every country that farms salmon. Why would anyone think Canada is immune? Despite the presence of this disease in East Coast farms, British Columbia still allows the importation of non-indigenous Atlantic salmon eggs from other countries. It was just a matter of time.

When Alaska banned fish farms, the top reason was to avoid disease spreading to our wild stocks. What was at stake was no mystery: Norway had already killed entire populations of wild fish due to parasites and disease introduced by imported salmon. Our state wisely chose to avoid such risk; yet folks to the south of us put us squarely in the path of what Alaskans feared the most.

As the representative of Alaska fishermen who rely exclusively on the health of wild fish, I am appalled by the near-silence of the Canadian agencies responsible to protect them. I've reserved comment in hopes that they would send some signal to the public, and West Coast fishermen in particular, that Canada is proactively engaged with a "fish first" attitude.

On Oct. 21 -- more than a week after ISA was detected in B.C. salmon -- Canadian officials issued a press release devoid of any sense of urgency. They announced they will run more tests, wait several weeks for results, and only then, if additional testing reveals ISA, stakeholders will be convened to, "identify and take appropriate next steps." Really?!

It's sound practice to verify a diagnostic result, particularly one with significant ramifications. What seems beyond the pale is the decision to wait weeks before convening the experts to develop a plan of action. In fact, it's incredible there wasn't a contingency plan in place long before the first farmed fish was placed in an ocean net pen.

At minimum, you'd think the B.C. government would try to reassure us, by pointing to the experts they immediately pulled together to brainstorm how to evaluate the extent of the problem and methods to contain and control it. Instead, in his opening response to questions from the B.C. Legislature, Minister of Agriculture and Lands Don McRae quipped, "Well, we've got another example of spinning media headlines and fearmongering from the Opposition." Not exactly reassuring.

Dr. Frederick Kibenge, who diagnosed ISA in British Columbia, has both studied and diagnosed ISA outbreaks; he runs an ISA specialty lab. How strange that fisheries officials play down the findings of this respected scientist instead of fasttracking an investigation.


We've also read statements that minimize the threat to Pacific salmon. Yet Dr. Kibenge isolated ISA in Pacific coho salmon at a Chilean farm, where large numbers of coho died from the disease. Dr. James Winton, fish health section chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Fisheries Research Center, has conducted much of the research on the topic. Winton has described last week's ISA finding as a "disease emergency" with "global implications."

Canadian officials need to explain to the public precisely what they are doing to monitor and enforce biological safeguards on the fish-farm industry. Canada and the U.S. have a responsibility to protect the wild public resources they hold in trust for us all.

I have no desire to strike fear into the hearts of the public or the fishermen I represent. However, we need transparency and assurance that appropriate steps are underway. If the Canadian government has information to quell our concerns, we have not yet heard it. If they have an effective plan of action, we have not yet seen it. How do fisheries professionals in Canada and along the West Coast intend to safeguard wild fish and fishing communities from the introduction of foreign disease strains now, and into the future? We're listening.

Dale Kelley has been executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association for more than 20 years. She is a member of the Pacific Salmon Commission's Transboundary River Panel and serves on the boards of numerous state and national fisheries organizations and several advisory groups.

The preceding commentary first appeared online in the Vancouver Sun on Oct. 31, 2011, and is republished here with the author's permission. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Dale Kelley

Dale Kelley has been executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association for nearly 30 years. She serves on the boards of several state and national fisheries organizations and federal advisory groups.