Did Dr. Kristi Miller's gorundbreaking virus research face internal roadblocks at DFO?

Cohen Commission: Was Kristi Miller’s Virus Research Obstructed by DFO Colleagues?


A new twist in the case Dr. Kristi Miller – the DFO scientist infamously muzzled by the Harper Government from discussing her groundbreaking salmon research publicly – came forth yesterday at the Cohen Commission into collapsing Fraser sockeye.

Ecojustice Lawyer Tim Leadem, Q.C., who represents the Conservation Coalition at the Inquiry, introduced into evidence two separate emails, each from Dr. Miller to senior DFO colleagues Drs. Christine MacWilliams and Stewart Johnson, respectively – both of whom are on the Inquiry’s scientific panel. The emails followed a senior staff meeting all three attended at the office of Dr. Laura Richards, DFO’s Pacific Region Director for Science, earlier this year.

In each note Dr. Miller describes efforts by these colleagues to prevent her from broadening her research into a pathogen – believed to be a parvovirus – to include farmed Atlantic salmon. Miller’s research shows this parvovirus may be associated with pre-spawn mortality in wild sockeye.

Dr. Miller’s research resulted in a paper published in the prestigious journal Science this past January. The publication called it some of the most important new salmon research in a decade – yet Dr. Miller was prevented from speaking to media about her work by the Harper Government’s Privy Council.

Now Miller’s emails suggest her work faced road blocks from within DFO as well.

Having established the genomic signature of this Parvovirus, Miller apparently wanted to start testing farmed Atlantic salmon on the coast, to see if they had the pathogen too and what transmission there may be between farmed and wild fish. According to these emails, Dr. Miller’s colleagues, Drs. MacWilliams and Stewart, had argued to the Regional Director against this new reserach going forward.

Dr. Miller wrote to Dr. MacWilliams following this meeting:

I am following up from our conversation in Laura Richards office regarding your reasoning for not initiating any testing for aquaculture fish (specifically Atlantic salmon) for the Parvovirus we have recently identified in high prevalence in wild sockeye salmon populations. You stated that until such a virus is accredited as an OIE rated disease, causing considerable observable mortality, and the molecular assay is validated and certified as such, one cannot ask industry to voluntarily submit fish for testing, that you would recommend to them that it would not be in their best interest to comply.

Translation: You told our boss that until the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) is absolutely certain about this disease and officially lists it, there’s no reason to go looking for it in farmed Atlantic salmon, even if we know it’s here in wild fish. You even said you’d advise the salmon farmers not to let us test their fish.

Miller’s email to Dr. Johnson was similar, except in his case she alleged his main rationale for blocking this work was that DFO should test wild pink and chum first.

These two scientists have been on the stand this week as part of the Commission’s expert science panel, discussing the topic of diseases and parasites. When they were questioned about the emails by lawyer Tim Leadem, they claimed Dr. Miller was “misstating” their comments to Dr. Richards.

But when pressed, there was little they specifically took issue with in Dr. Miller’s comments. In Dr. Johnson’s case, he contended he had actually suggested studying all species of wild Pacific salmon before testing farmed fish – as opposed to just pink and chum, as Dr. Miller alleged in her email. Both MacWilliams and Johnson were also sure to tell the Commission they hadn’t responded in writing to the email from Dr. Miller.

Is Kristi Miller’s work is being squeezed from inside DFO? (This on top of the pressure she’s been under from the Harper Government, including this week’s revelation that her lab in Nanaimo is facing funding cuts from the Treasury Board).

We’ll get to hear Dr. Miller’s response to her two colleagues – and hopefully some answers to many other burning questions relating to her work – as the embattled scientist and unexpected media focus of the Cohen Commission takes the stand herself today and tomorrow.

More on that this week at TheCanadian.org.

Read Dr. Kristi Miller’s email to DFO colleague Dr. Christine MacWilliams

Read Dr. Kristi Miller’s email to DFO colleague Dr. Stewart Johnson


About 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.

3 thoughts on “Cohen Commission: Was Kristi Miller’s Virus Research Obstructed by DFO Colleagues?

  1. Wild salmon are part of this provinces’ cultural heritage, and a significant mental image when one talks of BC to others in faraway places.
    Wild salmon is also one of the things that attract many to the sport fishing industry here.
    Salmon then are every British Columbians concern or should be.
    With 5 million as the population here if everyone donated one dollar to Kristi’s lab she would have plenty of research money to continue on her own regardless of what the treasury board determines.
    After witnessing the previous disaster on the east coast with regard to the cod collapse, one has to wonder why on earth’s name is the fisheries dept run out of a land locked province thousands of miles from either coast.
    Fisheries dept should be localized on both coasts, and run by people who are familiar with the areas and the migration patterns.
    I will go further and state this task to be administrated by First Nations. After all, they have been in this local area for more than 9000 years and have managed the salmon stocks far better than the immigrating Europeans have.
    Moreover the Europeans have only been in this area for a little more than 2-300 years, and look at the condition of the wild stocks; quite revealing as far as stewardship is concerned.

  2. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has a long history of catering to industry and corporations at the expense of fish and fish habitat. Many scientists with ethics have quit working for DFO after having their recommendations ignored, to the detriment of salmon and other species. Dr. Kristi Miller is in a very difficult position and I hope she will stay strong. It will be very interesting to hear her testimony.

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