Mark Hume: Cohen called on to release information on salmon virus


From the Globe & Mail – May 3, 2011

by Mark Hume

A federal public inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the
Fraser River has been accused of suppressing information that an
infectious virus has been detected in British Columbia waters.

concern is raised in letters to the Cohen Commission of Inquiry by
Gregory McDade, a lawyer representing salmon researcher and anti-fish
farm activist Alexandra Morton.

Officially the commission is not engaged with the issue, but the
letters, obtained by The Globe and Mail, show that Ms. Morton’s
knowledge of the disease and a debate over the public’s right to know
about it has developed into a contentious issue behind the scenes.

commission suspended its hearings for the day on Tuesday for what
spokesperson Carla Shore described as a routine all-counsel meeting to
discuss legal housekeeping matters.

But sources say the issue up
for discussion is the one raised by Mr. McDade’s letters, in which he
argues Ms. Morton should be released from the commission’s undertaking
of confidentiality.

The undertaking prevents participants in the
hearings from making public any information they have obtained through
disclosure. And with 390,000 documents and more than 188,000 e-mails
disclosed so far, that means there is a mountain of material to keep

Mr. McDade wrote that in combing through that vast volume
of material, Ms. Morton came across “indications” a disease known as
infectious salmon anemia virus, or ISA, may have been detected in fish
samples tested by provincial government labs.

The suggestion is
the symptoms of the disease were detected, but not the disease itself,
which has never been reported on the West Coast. ISA can be lethal to
Atlantic salmon, but Pacific salmon have proved immune to it in tests.
The concern is that if the disease were present, it could change and
begin to kill Pacific stocks.

“Canada and Canadians are obliged to
report diseases of aquatic animals as a member of the World
Organization for Animal Health,” Mr. McDade wrote.

“There are
approximately 35 indications of the existence of ISA identified in these
records to date,” he wrote. “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.”

He asked that Ms. Morton be released from her
undertaking so she can report her ISA concerns to the Canadian Food
Inspection Agency.

“There is a very substantial public interest in
ensuring full reporting of ISA indications. An ISA epidemic could prove
devastating to wild salmon stocks. In our submission the public
interest in proper reporting must outweigh the interest in
confidentiality,” Mr. McDade wrote.

The request was refused by commission lawyers – but neither the ruling nor Mr. McDade’s application were released.

a second letter Mr. McDade objected to the secrecy around the
application and the ruling, saying it “is reminiscent of the criticisms
of the Star Chamber. It is not appropriate to a public inquiry.”

McDade wrote that British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen,
who is heading the inquiry, should hear submissions on the matter “in an
open public setting.”

He concludes by stating that the second
letter, which was distributed to the more than 20 lawyers representing
participants at the hearings, should not be covered by the undertaking
because it does not contain any confidential documents.

Mr. McDade did not return calls on Tuesday. Ms. Morton said because of the undertaking she cannot discuss her concerns.

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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.