The Infectious Salmon Anemia virus (ISAv) is a ticking time bomb that could explode under BC’s salmon farming industry and their open net-pens. If this industry has imported such a disease into the ecology of the Pacific Northwest via infected Atlantic salmon material, the results could be an ecological catastrophe. Whatever remains of the industry’s besieged environmental reputation would be ruined, as would any vestige of confidence in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
But the real and lasting damage would be to Pacific wild salmon, together with the entire West Coast marine ecology and culture that depends on them. ISAv could dwarf sea lice as a scourge because it would be a persistent threat to the health of all wild salmon and herring – once established, the disease would be intractable and permanent.
ISAv was first detected in Norwegian salmon farms in 1984. It existed previously in Norwegian rivers as a benign infection that did not kill salmon. However, in a change that biologists call a “stochastic event”, it mutated to become lethal – probably in fish farms “because there is no reason for it to live lightly in fish destined for slaughter” (alexandramorton.typepad.com/). The lethal version was then carried with Atlantic salmon brood stock to salmon farm hatcheries where it was distributed by the industry throughout the North Atlantic and overseas to Canada and Chile – its arrival in Chile in 2007 nearly decimated the country’s entire salmon farming industry.
The first evidence of ISAv’s arrival in Canada was in New Brunswick salmon farms in 1996. In 1998, the Friends of Clayoquot Sound were expressing concern about its arrival in BC. In January of 2009, David Suzuki, Chief Bob Chamberlin, Professor Larry Dill, Alexandra Morton and over 100 other concerned citizens wrote a letter to the Premier of British Columbia, requesting “that B.C. immediately prohibit the importation of live farm salmon material (all species of broodstock, milt and eggs) to protect BC from the spread of Infectious Salmon Anemia.”
In June 2009, Alexandra Morton wrote another letter of concern. “I am not hearing how the [salmon farming] industry can possibly safeguard British Columbia from contamination with their ISA virus. Infectious Salmon Anemia is a salmon virus that is spreading worldwide, wherever there are salmon farms.” She highlighted her concern with the authoritative prediction of Professor Are Nylund, head of the Fish Diseases Group at the University of Bergen, Norway. He warned that, “based on 20 years of experience, I can guarantee that if British Columbia continues to import salmon eggs from the eastern Atlantic, infectious salmon diseases, such as ISA, will arrive in Western Canada.”
The inevitable may now be the reality. At least two media outlets, The Tyee and Pacific Free Press, have reported the possibility that ISAv is in BC marine waters. The Globe & Mail (May 03/11) reported that “there are approximately 35 indications of the existence of ISA identified in [the Cohen Commission] records to date” and that these records contain “information showing provincial inspectors found signs of a disease, infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, had been detected in British Columbia.”
The salmon farming industry is certain that ISAv has not reached the West Coast because high mortality in its pens would be an obvious indicator. But such mortality would not occur with the difficult-to-detect non-lethal form of ISAv (Ibid.). And DFO, in concert with the industry’s position, has repeatedly assured concerned British Columbians that regulations are in place to prevent ISAv from reaching the West Coast. Given DFO’s overtly supportive relationship with the salmon farming industry, however, Morton decided to “ground truth” this assurance. She found “that at every location where they could have caught ISAv there was a gaping hole…. except where trade sanctions loomed, then the proper documentation surfaces” (Ibid.).
If Plan A fails, will Plan B work? Even if ISAv is brought to the West Coast with farmed Atlantic salmon, Pacific salmon are supposed to be immune to the disease ‹ supposed to be. But as every biologist knows, and as ISAv has already demonstrated in Norway, such viral diseases are mutational acrobats. Wild Pacific species would be an irresistible opportunity that ISAv could reach simply by mutating. The result would be an unmitigated disaster for everything from ecology to culture associated with BC’s iconic wild salmon. Morton writes that she has found Broughton Archipelago herring with the symptomatic ISAv bleeding around their fins but has been unable to get a laboratory to test the samples (Ibid.).
Meanwhile, the Cohen Commission’s inquiry grinds on. From August 25th to September 9th, 2011, it will examine the relationship between disappearing Fraser River Sockeye, West Coast salmon farming and the gauntlet of open net-pens that wild smolts have to pass on their out-migration to the sea.
The salmon farming industry, meanwhile, has been doing its legal best to prevent the release of privileged information it has been forced to divulge to the Commission, arguing that this release to the public could cause them “reputational and economic damage”. The public availability of such confidential information previously hidden from open environmental scrutiny, it contends, would create a “media circus”.
“Media circus” is the industry’s term for losing control of a public relations agenda that for decades has been construing conspicuously damaging environmental practices as harmless. ISAv could blast that benign image out of West Coast waters. Indeed, a whole minefield of bombs are ticking under the industry’s open net-pens.