Racing a salmon influenza virus
If you had evidence that a European flu-like virus was seeping uncontrolled into the place you call home and government refused to do anything about it, while the industry involved was known to use the same strategic advisor as Exxon, the tobacco industry, China and the US government, could you sit quietly and just hope for the best?
The infectious salmon anemia virus, ISAV, is a branch of the influenza family that infects salmon. It is spreading wherever Atlantic salmon are held in feedlots. There is no cure. Like other flu viruses, it does not bother to proof-read its mistakes, called mutations and that is how ISAV ends up growing fangs and claws when allowed to reproduce rapidly in feedlots. It caused $2 billion in damages when it jumped from Norway to Chile in farm salmon eggs.
I used to track whales. In 1984, I followed a pod of whales into the remote archipelago between Kingcome and Knight Inlet 300 km north of Vancouver and I stayed.
When the first salmon pen appeared in 1987, the community of Echo Bay believed the government when they said this would be good for us. I should have packed up and fled to the north.
The story of salmon feedlots in British Columbia is the tale of the Emperor with No Clothes, only much, much longer. Salmon “farming” never made more jobs than were lost in the fisheries it displaced. It can’t feed the world because it uses more fish than it makes, while burning fossil fuels the length of the globe to make this fruitless transaction. It is one of those vertically integrated corporate schemes that seems to be wreaking havoc with local communities and ecosystems everywhere on earth.
When this industry displaced my fishermen neighbours, dropping their anchors in prime prawn, rock cod and salmon habitat, Echo Bay lost critical local economic activity. We are on the same trajectory as Scotland, Ireland, eastern Canada, the wild salmon tipping into steep decline after the salmon feedlots showed up (Ford and Myers 2008).
Today, we are surrounded by 27 Norwegian-owned salmon feedlots and there are less than 10 people left in Echo Bay. And we don’t feel that the salmon feedlots were good for us.
In 1990, Jon Lilletun of the Norwegian Parliamentary Committee on Environment told Canada, “We are very strict about the quality and the environment questions. Therefore, some of the fish farmers went to Canada. They said we want bigger fish farms; we can do as we like. That is a very hot subject, I think” (Hansard 12-9-1990). Fisheries and Oceans Canada was warned by the industry’s home country.
Salmon are designed to keep moving, with predators constantly removing the sick, but in feedlots sick fish fester. A single farm can produce 650 billion infectious viral particles an hour (DFO testimony Cohen Commission).
Avian flu taught us not to let wild birds touch the droppings of feedlot chickens, but salmon feedlots are pouring a blizzard of manure over the majority of British Columbia’s wild salmon as they migrate through the new marine industrial zones. I see this as unacceptable high-risk management of a food resource and a feedlot influenza virus.
As the wild salmon of Echo Bay were fading away, the stench of rotting fish and drifting offal made it clear there were disease issues in the salmon feedlots. But I was not allowed to know the specifics. So eight days before the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of the Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River opened its doors, 100 of us, First Nations, non-natives, fishermen, tourism operators, scientists and others got into canoes graciously lent to us by Ridge Wilderness Adventures and we paddled from Hope to Vancouver.
We wanted Justice Bruce Cohen to know how important release of the salmon feedlot disease records were to us. When we landed, we walked in a torrential downpour through Vancouver to the opening of the Commission and stood there with water pooling off of us in the courtroom until Justice Bruce Cohen acknowledged and then we left quietly – message received.
Cohen made history.
For the first time ever, salmon feedlots health reports became public. Thank you to all who participated and to the Nations who gave us shelter every night – it was worth it. While the federal and provincial government and industry all testified under oath that ISA virus is not in British Columbia, the provincial vet was reporting “the classic lesions associated with ISA virus” in the farm salmon.
The industry was specifically ordering ISA virus tests beginning in 2009. These companies deal with ISA virus at home in Norway and in their Chilean feedlots. They should know what it looks like. The vet was also reporting symptoms of the Norwegian heart-wasting virus and one that causes Pancreas Disease. These feedlots cannot be quarantined. Everything coming out of those fish is now wafting along the British Columbia coast carried on the once-clean currents of the North Pacific.
I was stunned. All three of those pathogens are a financial threat to salmon feedlot profits in Norway, because they kill so many salmon. Forget DFO, I immediately learned how to sample for viruses, found the most highly published scientists on these specific diseases and with a small, dedicated team spread out through BC and sent samples to them.
I am not allowed access to salmon feedlots, so I went shopping and bought farm salmon in supermarkets. We got positive test results for all the European viruses Dr. Gary Marty, the BC fish farm vet cited in his reports. He denies these results, but what can I say, he saw the symptoms, we took samples and the labs got positive results.
When we got our first positive test results for ISA virus in BC, the Cohen Commission was over, but remarkably, Justice Cohen saw the implications and reopened his entire inquiry just before Christmas 2011 to examine the evidence; could this European virus be part of the Fraser sockeye collapse?
Accusations flew in all directions; the Minister of Fisheries stated “Canada’s reputation has needlessly been put at risk.” The BC Minister of Agriculture said “lawmakers” in the US and Asia wanted to close their borders to BC farm salmon. The BC Clark government soon drafted Bill 37 to make disease reporting in farm animals punishable by 2 years in jail and a $75,000 fine
When the Cohen inquiry re-opened we were in for a shock. Amid the furor over our test results, senior federal fisheries scientists were quietly sitting on their own ISA virus positive test results from 2004, in 100% of the Cultus Lake sockeye (Cohen Exhibit #2045 cohencommission.ca).
The Cultus sockeye are the most damaged Fraser River sockeye stock, designated as endangered in 2002, a Cultus Sockeye Recovery Team was formed in 2009. DFO never informed the Stó:lo Nation about these viral results, and they never provided the information to the Cohen Commission even though the inquiry had specifically reopened to investigate the potential for this virus to infect Fraser sockeye.
When questioned on the stand Dr. Jones said he did not believe the ISA virus positive results and so ordered no follow-up testing. ISAV is an internationally reportable influenza – type virus, every country that has it is trying to get rid of it. Why did DFO ignore this early warning?
I believe the answer lies in the testimony of CFIA representative, Dr. Kim Klotins:
”So if, let’s say, we do find ISA in B.C. and all of a sudden markets are closed, our role is then to try to renegotiate or negotiate market access to those countries... We'll let them know what we can do and whether we can meet that market access. If we can't meet it, then there will be no trade basically.” (Testimony Dec. 19, 2011, page 119, Cohen Commission transcript).
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, (DFO) is a federal agency. As such, it may have orders to place international trade as a higher priority than wild salmon. Thirty million Atlantic salmon eggs have been imported into BC by the fish farm industry despite opposition from almost every level of provincial and federal government.
If Canada had heeded its own scientists and refused the Atlantic feedlot eggs, the profits of the companies using BC to raise fish would have been reduced. Atlantic salmon are their money fish. Canada in turn would have been vulnerable to trade sanctions, which would have hurt other corporations operating in Canada.
It appears as if a decision was made to accept the threat to wild salmon over trade, without asking Canadians. Of course, this is how Canada lost one of the biggest human food resources on earth – the North Atlantic cod.
If we want wild salmon, it is up to us. With the generous patience from First Nation, sport and commercial fishermen and the help of the Vancouver business community, it is a race. Obstacles are being thrown in our path, reputations attacked, paying the lab bills is a chronic challenge, scientists are muzzled, and the burden of understanding what these viruses are capable of doing to wild salmon is traumatic.
The good news is that ISA virus has not yet grown teeth and claws in B.C. I am not sure about the other two viruses.
I am in a race against an epidemic and government has given the viruses the head start, the viral spill has to stop if we are serious about wanting wild salmon in British Columbia.
To be continued.
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