Common Sense Canadian

Farmed Salmon Confidential (Part 1): ISA and the Cohen Commission

Posted August 8, 2011 by Damien Gillis in Oceans

Part 1 of a 2-part series – read Part 2 here

This past year, the Norwegian-controlled salmon farming industry spent $1.5 million on a glitzy advertising campaign in BC, which essentially denied the impacts of open net cage salmon farms on wild fish and the marine environment. The ads left viewers with the impression the industry’s critics are nothing but a bunch of raving conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, unbeknownst to the public, the salmon farmers were facing their toughest hurdle to date – and it was no longer about sea lice, as it has so often been in the past. The subject matter was of a much smaller but infinitely more damaging nature – the possibility that viruses connected to their operations were not only devastating their own farmed fish in places like Chile, but could potentially be linked to mysterious crashes of iconic wild salmon runs on Canada’s west coast. What’s worse, it’s now clear the industry knew about these problems and has done everything in its power to keep them from the public.

ISA and Salmon Leukemia

Largely thanks to the Cohen Commission into collapsing Fraser River sockeye stocks, significant new information has been trickling out over the past year, which – when one assembles the pieces of the puzzle – reveals a coordinated cover-up by the industry of this damaging information, aided by both the BC and Canadian governments. As the aquaculture portion of the Cohen Commission in late August and September draws near, The Common Sense Canadian will attempt through a two-part feature this week to connect the dots and reveal the nature of this cover-up to our readers.

There are two different viruses at issue here – the first, Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) was responsible for decimating up to 80% of the farmed salmon industry in Chile throughout 2008 and 2009 and has affected Norway, Scotland and the East Coast of Canada. While it isn’t known officially to affect wild Pacific salmon yet, the concern is that it may mutate (or may already have done so – more on that later), with catastrophic results for our wild fish.

The second is known as Salmon Leukemia and results in brain lesions which are likely already affecting BC’s wild salmon stocks. Research on this virus is newer than with ISA and the potential of a connection to salmon farms requires immediate further investigation.

Salmon Leukemia was the subject of a recent paper published by DFO scientist Dr. Kristi Miller – whose muzzling by officials connected to the Prime Minister’s office has made headlines. The world’s most prestigious journal, Science, called Dr. Miller’s paper some of the most significant new salmon research in a decade, and yet she was barred from speaking with any media following its publication in January of this year. (More on that in Part 2 of this series).

The Chile Report

We will begin here with ISA and the topic of “vertical transmission” – which refers to the passing of the disease from parent to offspring through eggs. In Canada, DFO has maintained that the disease doesn’t travel this way (evident in correspondence with salmon biologist Alexandra Morton, who began raising concerns about “vertical transmission” to DFO in 2009). But that’s in direct contrast to what the best research out of Norway has been showing for almost three years now.

In November 2008, the scientific journal Archives of Virology published a paper titled, “ISA virus in Chile: evidence of vertical transmission” – which identified an unnamed Norwegian broodstock company as being responsible for spreading ISA to Chile from Norway via infected eggs.

Immediately following the paper’s publication, the Norwegian broodstock company AquaGen (whose shareholders include the world’s #1 and #2 salmon farming companies – Marine Harvest and Cermaq) filed a formal complaint with Norway’s National Commission for the Investigation of Scientific Misconduct, charging the paper’s findings were inaccurate. In doing so, they (AquaGen) outed themselves as the previously unnamed subject of the report. Cermaq, who had financed the scientific research via lead author and company employee Dr. Siri Vike (and owned more than 12% of the subject egg company) said nothing at the time.

It was only in April 2011, over two years after the complaint, that Norway’s National Commission for the Investigation of Scientific Misconduct unanimously ruled that the scientific research was valid. Cermaq was faced with no choice but to come out publicly in support of the research and in late April Dr. Siri Vike gave a presentation in Oslo, Norway, acknowledging the vertical transmission of ISA to Chile from Norway. Cermaq published the presentation – “Preventative Fish Health Work” – very quietly on their website in early May.

Unfortunately for Cermaq – which is over 40% owned by the Norwegian Government – sometime in late June of this year the company “accidentally posted online” private minutes of a “Cermaq Corporate Team” meeting in April. The notes referred to the “very sensitive” situation in B.C. and stated that: “[Salmon farm activist Don] Staniford has been twittering about Siri Vike and the article on the ISA virus and how it originated from Norway.”

Following the publication of the private minutes in full online by Alexandra Morton in early July, Cermaq responded with an article on “The real ISA ‘situation in BC’ for Mainstream Canada” – which claimed that “the research mentioned has to do with Chile and Norway, and nothing to do with Canada,” and, “there is no ISA present in our broodstock.”

The Secret ISA Files

The industry flatly denies ISA is here in BC – and yet we would do to be cautious, as some 12 million Atlantic salmon eggs have entered BC since 2004. And according to legal discussions that emerged recently from the Cohen Commission – as reported by Mark Hume in the Globe and Mail this past May – documents show that the symptoms of ISA are already being detected in BC’s farmed fish.

According to Hume, Alexandra Morton’s lawyer at the Commission, Greg McDade, submitted theses facts to Justice Cohen in an effort to have his client released from the Commission’s confidentiality undertaking so she could pass this ISA information to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. McDade wrote to the Commission, “There are approximately 35 indications of the existence of ISA identified in these records to date. Of great biological concern is that some of these diagnoses are in Pacific salmon, suggesting potential spread of a novel and virulent virus into native populations may be underway into the North Pacific.”

In other words, ISA could already be here in BC – and may already be mutating to affect wild salmon.

And why wouldn’t it be? Canada doesn’t even ask foreign hatcheries to report ISA on the certificate they have to sign before shipping eggs to BC – and ISA was not reportable on BC farms until January of this year. Bear in mind these are the same companies operating here as in Chile.
The industry’s lawyers fought McDade’s request to have his client released to share these documents with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (who has a legal obligation to know this information). The BCSFA successfully argued against the disclosure of disease data during to the Cohen Commission, with Justice Cohen ruling in June that information must be kept confidential until the evidentiary hearings on aquaculture. 

In May, the BCSFA conceded that should disease data be disclosed publicly there would be a “likelihood of misuse and irrevocable damage to the economic interests and reputations of participants and individuals.”  In another submission to the Cohen Commission in May, the BCSFA admitted, “Irreparable damage will occur to the reputations and economic interests of the BCSFA’s member companies and their shareholders.”

But the industry’s efforts to keep this disease data under wraps may prove short-lived, as much of it is expected to enter the public record during the Inquiry’s aquaculture hearings from August 21 through September 8 – in which case the cat would truly be out of the bag.

Watch for Part 2 of “Farmed Salmon Confidential” this Thursday, as we discuss Salmon Leukemia and reveal the lengths to which the industry has gone to prevent testing of their farms and the publication of disease records that it says would cause “irreparable” and “irrevocable” financial damage to these Norwegian corporations.


About the Author

Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.



    A couple of observations about this issue;

    First the scientist who has allowed herself to be muzzled even though her work is already in the public domain; I believe this could be easily circumvented by having an interested party who is NOT MEDIA, read her documents and listen to her speak, all the while taking notes to publish.

    It is the Feds who have stipulated that she not speak with the media but this does not prevent her from speaking to me, Alexandra Morton, or anyone not related to media or employed by media…..

    Secondly, I firmly believe that a class action lawsuit against the provincial, federal, and Norwegian governments, and any fish farm company operating here in BC is appropriate now and will shake things loose almost immediately.

    I believe this is why the fish farmers association is desperate to keep this covered up.

    This will include ALL the fishing groups, trollers, trawlers gillnetters, seine boats, etc. and including any other wild salmon interested parties such as sports fishing lodges, etc. There could also be the collateral damage done to third parties such as First Nations Peoples who depend upon salmon for food sources and employment opportunities.

    peter rueschmann

    i was involved in the fishfarming business from 1986 till 1992,i remember a meeting in qualicum around 89 or so there was a very knowledgable biologist speaking out against atlantic salmon,we ended up getting them into B.C anyways. also most people in the industry at the time where against it including myself and my partners.does this tell you anything about our corrupt system.

    Ron Sward

    What I don’t understand is why wouldn’t they acknowledge they have a problem? After all it’s to their benefit to disclose and wouldn’t you think Crusty Campbell Clark would force them to be more “transparent” like, hold on, she and her government are?…….NOT.

    Ron Sward

    Bruce MacLeod

    Just more disappointing, frightening news to keep the blood circulating at an intolerable rate, but thank-you anyway Rafe

    Bruce MacLeod

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