Tag Archives: cohen commission

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Food Safety Agency Should Protect Public, Not Cover up Virus for Salmon Farming Industry


The federal agency embroiled in the recent XL Meats tainted beef scandal is at it again – this time leading efforts to cover up a potentially catastrophic farmed salmon flu-like viral outbreak on BC’s coast. Charged with ensuring your food is safe to eat, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) increasingly appears to be acting as a political arm of the Harper Government and an inept custodian of Canadian trade which will do our export business far more harm than good in the long run.

A little over a week ago, it became apparent that the CFIA is working hard to discredit and de-certify one of the two labs in the world recgonized by the World Animal Health Organization (OIE) as experts in detecting a deadly salmon virus, known as ISAv. The lab in question, run out of Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of P.E.I. by Dr. Fred Kibenge, diagnosed the ISAv outbreak that devastated the Chilean aquaculture industry several years ago, causing $2 Billion in damage. Such is his scientific credibility that when the fish farm industry was experiencing unexplained losses of their fish in Chile in 2007, they went to Kibenge to test for ISAv. 

Recently, Dr. Kibenge has been testing farmed and wild salmon samples from BC as he investigates a potential similar outbreak here. His findings were instrumental in forcing the re-opening of the Cohen Commission into disappearing sockeye last year, where he went before Justice Cohen as a key witness. That the Commission took Dr. Kibenge’s testimony and research as seriously as it did – reflected in its ultimate findings released a month ago – should be of particular note to the CFIA as they attack his lab and credibility.

During the same judicial proceedings, internal emails revealed these CFIA senior staff acting, as  the Commission’s lead lawyer suggested, more like hockey players high-fiving each other after beating their opponent than scientists and civil servants serious about getting to the bottom of a viral mystery which threatens the environment and economy of BC – even the salmon farms themselves.

The emails followed the telephone press conference the CFIA hosted to rebuke the first discovery of ISAv in wild salmon on BC’s coast by independent salmon biologist Alexandra Morton and SFU Professor Rick Routledge. I was on that call and appalled by the lengths they went to dismiss and discredit this groundbreaking new finding. I asked the CFIA’s spokespeople where the Precautionary Principle fit in their approach. Evidently it receives nowhere near the prominence Justice Cohen accords it.

In one of the emails that surfaced at the Cohen Commission, dated November 9, 2011, Joseph Beres, an inspection manager at the CFIA, wrote to colleague Dr. Con Kiley and other senior DFO and CFIA staff who had appeared on the conference call:


It is clear that we are turning the PR tide to our favour – and this is because of the very successful performance of our spokes[people] at the Tech Briefing yesterday – you, Stephen, Peter and Paul were a terrific team, indeed. Congratulations! One battle is won, now we have to nail the surveillance piece, and we will win the war also.

Cheers, Joe.

In the same strain, Dr. Kiley replies, “Concentrate on the headlines, that’s often all that people read or remember. Both the ‘Top Stories’ and the ‘Related Pieces’.”

During the Commission’s investigation into this matter, Dr. Kibenge addressed what would come to be described by CFIA officials as an “audit” of his lab in the midst of his initial research into ISAv in BC. It is the disputed results of this and one other similar audit that form the basis for the CFIA’s request to the World Animal Health Organization to strip Dr. Kibenge of his status as one of two “reference labs” certified to investigate ISAv outbreaks.

While he was on the stand during the Inquiry, Dr. Kibenge described this bizarre “audit”: “The inspection was meant to be about understanding my processes so they could improve their own practices, but once the inspection began I got the sense that it was about obtaining information, because the first thing they asked me about when they did the inspection was the samples.” Dr. Kibenge added, “I quickly realized that the purpose of the site visit…was actually in my view, to confirm a hypothesis that had already been presented in the media.”

According to Mark Hume, who broke the story last week in the Globe and Mail, “The [CFIA] has promised to sample nearly 8,000 salmon in B.C. in response to concerns about ISA. But the results of those tests are not yet known, and the CFIA has challenged the validity of Dr. Kibenge’s tests, saying government labs couldn’t replicate his results.”

Of course, as the XL Meats scandal taught us, the CFIA’s detection methods are quite capable of failure.

In response to this latest attack on his lab by the CFIA, Dr. Kibenge told Hume, “What they are doing here is essentially punishing me for having testified at the Cohen Commission and trying to suppress the findings that we’ve been finding. It’s an attack on my credibility,” he said. “ I just feel compelled to continue with my research work because there is nothing here that I can see that I’ve done wrong.”

Dr. Kibenge isn’t the only world-class lab working on the BC ISAv mystery. The lab run by Dr. Are Nylund at the University of Bergen in Norway has reviewed some the same samples as Dr. Kibenge and come to similar conclusions about the likelihood of ISAv’s presence in BC waters.

The CFIA has responded to concerns raised about its denial that ISAv is here in BC by affirming its commitment to protecting Canadian trade. If BC were to become officially designated as an ISAv-contaminated region, CFIA employee Dr. Kim Klotins testified at the Cohen Commission, that could indeed close borders to the 92% Norwegian-owned salmon farming industry in BC –  a potentially fatal blow to the industry’s local operations. Setting aside for a moment the troubling notion that our food safety inspector views protecting trade as its chief mandate, the CFIA’s defence raises more questions than it answers.

Just as its failure to take proactive enforcement action in the XL Meats scandal ultimately led to a serious blight on Canadian trade – with the temporary closing of the US border to Canadian beef exporters – so will covering up this salmon virus until it has mushroomed into a full-blown catastrophe. This short-term butt covering is downright dangerous – not just to our wild fish, but to the trade the agency purports to be defending.

On the heels of the first indications the virus is already here, CFIA joined senior Harper Government leaders and BC’s Liberal Premier in a coordinated offensive to convince foreign governments there was nothing to these concerns. In November, 2011, Agriculture Minister Don McRae accompanied Premier Clark on a trade mission to China to deliver the message that BC seafood is safe. How will those trading partners feel when they later learn they were misled? What impact will that have on Canada’s international reputation and trading opportunities? There is much more than Norwegian farmed salmon at stake here.

Now, the question that must also be asked, given the agency’s health and safety mandate, is can we be so sure that this salmon virus in the influenza family, from industrial farming practices, won’t mutate in a way that poses a threat to human health such as bird flu and swine flu have done before? I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting there’s a shred of science to support that notion – but the question must be asked, as the science must be done, not stifled at every turn because it’s politically inconvenient.

Justice Cohen called for the Precautionary Principle to be thoroughly implemented in future fisheries management. I suggest the CFIA act accordingly and treat this potential viral outbreak seriously. We may one day be dealing with more than just the loss of our wild salmon and the economy dependent on them.

It is time time for the CFIA to quit playing petty, vindictive political games and to start working with Dr. Kibenge’s lab to get to the bottom of this salmon flu mystery – not to mention to begin regaining the confidence of the public it’s supposed to serve. In all the media they do, the CFIA and politicians rest their criticisms on two admittedly poor initial samples from Rivers Inlet that tested positive for ISAv, which led to many subsequent samples following far more rigourous protocols. To the CFIA, it’s as if the other salmon from BC that have tested positive for ISA virus – including wild fish from various streams and lakes and farm salmon purchased from Vancouver-area supermarkets – simply don’t exist.

While the CFIA appears to think it is acting in the interest of Canadian exports by protecting the salmon farming industry from these damaging revelations, it is in fact undermining our nation’s credibility on the international stage and doing long-term damage to our cross-border trade – all to protect a largely Norwegian-owned industry that contributes marginal economic value to the province of British Columbia.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper must reign in CFIA now and start paying serious attention to this important salmon virus research.

Justice Bruce Cohen releases his report in Vancouver - Oct. 31, 2012

The Recommendations of the Cohen Commission Report


After three years of evidence, study and writing, Justice Bruce Cohen has finally submitted his $26 million Report on the disappearance of the Fraser River sockeye salmon. Despite being written in the restrained language of the judiciary, it is explicitly and implicitly explosive, condemning of the federal government’s environmental policies, scathing in its assessment of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and critical of the salmon farming industry.

One of the most impressive qualities of Justice Cohen’s report is its perspective. While it acknowledges the deleterious effect on wild salmon from warming oceans and rivers due to global climate change, it recognizes that the longterm future of wild salmon is bleak without the proper funding, research and supervision by the federal government. Such a splendid, valuable and crucially important natural resource cannot continue to exist if it is not properly protected, managed and appreciated. According to Justice Cohen, the federal government’s abdication of its responsibility for this ecological treasure has been unwise and “troubling”.

The predominance of politics over responsibility is echoed in the actions and inactions of DFO. While Justice Cohen praises the efforts of lower level fisheries officials who work heroically in a regime of ongoing constraints, his Report highlights DFO’s contradictory goals of promoting salmon farming while being mandated to protect wild salmon. The two are mutually exclusive. His comments are an unequivocal condemnation of political interference within DFO and, by implication, confirmation of the detrimental effects of salmon farming on wild salmon.

Noteworthy is the fact that, of the 75 recommendations made by Justice Cohen, a disproportionally high number — 11 of them — deal specifically with salmon farming and the constraints that need to be placed on this industry if wild salmon are to prosper. Since global climate change, impaired ocean conditions, pollution and habitat loss are threats difficult to address, the negative effects of salmon farming become particularly conspicuous because they can be corrected immediately and easily by simple administrative measures.

Justice Cohen is explicit in some of these recommendations. For example, #16 and #17 specify that siting of salmon farms along the migration routes of wild fish be reviewed based on current scientific knowledge, and that those farms in the migration routes of Fraser River sockeye should be relocated.

Salmon farms in the Discovery Islands are of particular concern. #14 calls for a moratorium on all farmed salmon expansion located there. #18 specifies that, “If at any time between now and September 30, 2020, the minister of fisheries and oceans determines that net-pen salmon farms in the Discovery Islands (fish health sub-zone 3-2) pose more than a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon, he or she should promptly order that those salmon farms cease operations.” And #19 is more prescriptive and comprehensive. After appropriate “research and analysis”, net-pen salmon farming should be prohibited in the Discovery Islands if any more than “a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon” is determined.

The Discovery Islands area is a noted geographical constriction between Vancouver Island and the mainland where most migrating Fraser River fish are forced to travel. With only nine of its 70 farms are located there, the salmon farming industry would experience limited economic impact should these sites be closed. Perhaps, then, the industry should close them voluntarily to ensure the safe passage of migrating salmon, avoid the cost of multiple studies, and take an ethically high position by exercising the Precautionary Principle. This would be a symbolic gesture of good faith since extensive studies have already implicated these salmon farms in the transfer of sea lice and disease to the migrating wild fish.

Justice Cohen’s Report, however, has much wider implications than just the Discovery Islands. While he was mandated to review only the cause of the collapse in Fraser River sockeye, his recommendations clearly apply to other wild salmon. Recommendation #68 acknowledges that disease and sea lice are likely emanating from all salmon farms, clear recognition that concentrating large numbers of contained fish in confined conditions creates breeding sites for pathogens and parasites which are an obvious threat to virtually every salmon swimming within proximity of the net-pens. Many salmon farms happen to be located along migration routes where the most damage is done. Indeed, the entire salmon farming industry, as it is presently practiced, is under suspicion.

Perhaps the most damning assessment of the tripartite fiasco created by government, DFO and salmon farming is captured in just a few words by Justice Cohen. “I accept the evidence that devastating disease could sweep through the wild populations, killing large numbers of wild fish without scientists being aware of it.” This dramatically and succinctly summarizes the deplorable state of the present situation. DFO has so blatantly mismanaged, compromised and neglected wild salmon that it has no idea of what is happening to them, why it is happening, and wouldn’t know if it did happen.

The source of such “devastating disease”, although not expressly stated by Justice Cohen, points directly to the salmon farming industry. This is what Justice Cohen would have deduced after reconvening his Commission for three days of exceptional hearings in December, 2011, to hear new evidence of the unprecedented presence in BC’s wild salmon of infectious salmon anemia (ISAv) — an alien disease that could only have reached the West Coast with farmed fish.

Wild salmon are failing because they are being subjected to undue risks. The thrust of Justice Cohen’s recommendations is to first exercise precaution in our management of this crucial resource, and then to use open, serious and thorough research to identify and eliminate these risks. 

Justice Bruce Cohen unveils his final report in Vancouver

Rafe: Cohen Commission report rightly targets salmon farms, Precautionary Principle


There are several things that jumped out at me with the Cohen Commission Final Report, released yesterday.

The first is that my faith in Bruce Cohen as expressed on CBC’s Early Edition right after his name was announced has been fully justified. I said then that I knew the man, had fought in court with the man, that he was a superb lawyer and judge and that those who thought he could be pushed around just because he happened to be a very nice guy to boot would be pleasantly surprised.

Hell of a good job, Bruce, I’m proud of you.

Here is my first prediction – the Fraser Institute-led Op-ed page in the Vancouver Sun will very soon have a weasily op-ed piece from Mary Ellen Walling of the Salmon Farmers Association.

Alexandra Morton has been thoroughly vindicated and ought to get the Order Of Canada immediately. Only we who know Alex know what she’s been through with the DFO and Provincial governments slandering her and blocking her every move with lies and distortions.

Commissioner Cohen tested, as I said he would, his mandate to the utmost. It’s here we should note that he was only empowered to look at Fraser River sockeye, not the hundreds of thousands of other salmon impacted by fish farms.

It will be observed – as it already has been – that he found no “smoking gun”. Of course he didn’t because there probably isn’t one – the sockeye run more risks that just fish farms. What I also observed on the Early Edition that morning is that there are many causes of salmon loss on their journey into the ocean and back but that one thing will surely come out – fish farms are a major suspect and since we could deal with them we should. This is clearly the finding of the Cohen Commission.

Let’s look at an obvious finding in the report and one that the Commissioner must have felt awkward finding what should be so easy to see – DFO has a clear conflict of interest being mandated to protect wild salmon and shill for the fish farmers at the same time. How any minister could fail to see that is beyond me.

I cannot in the time I have today deal with all of the report, but let me emphasize what all who want to save our salmon must repeat, tiresomely if necessary: THE OPERATIVE POLICY IS THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE.

This means that the onus of proving no harm will follow is placed on the shoulders of him whom proposes an undertaking.

If this principle had been followed in the beginning none of this would have happened.

It’s not that no one knew about this principle because it’s been the law of the land for decades.

Henceforth every single proposed invasion of the environment must be subject to this rule.

Why should people like Alexandra Morton have to lose their homes and go broke when, if the Precautionary Principle had been enforced, she could do what she came to Canada to do – study Orcas?

Looking very bad today is also John Cummins, the leader of the vanishing BC Conservatives whose one-track mind can’t accept anything that doesn’t involve abolishing the native fishery.

You can be sure that the government of Canada and the Clark government will do nothing. And here it is that our system of so-called parliamentary government is so flawed by reason of party discipline – not one Liberal MLA nor Conservative MP will press for implementation of Commissioner Cohen’s recommendations. It is because of this that every time those who care about the environment  win, they end up losing – the Kemano Completion Program is a good example.

This report must be the bottom line of all protests for our environment and those it sustains. Our rallying cry should be, “Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen and the precautionary principle!” so that people who care can centre on this fundamental maxim and force the governments to do what they have been told to do.

This should be a great day for all who care and it will be so if we bring unyielding pressure, including in the voting booth.

Dr. Kriti Miller was a key player in last year's Cohen Inquiry, whose finalk report is expected this week (photo: JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail )

Otto Langer Unleashes on Salmon Inquiry, DFO, Harper on Eve of Report


On the eve of the expected release of the final report from the Cohen Inquiry into disappearing Fraser River sockeye, retired DFO senior biologist and manager Otto Langer offers his critique of the Commission and his former employer. Langer, the man who blew the whistle on Stephen Harper’s plan to gut the Fisheries Act, was also an expert witness at the Inquiry.

I often noted half way through the Cohen Commission hearings into disappearing Fraser River sockeye in Vancouver in 2011 that I would not hold my breath for the Commission to make any real impact on changing DFO and if we do not rehabilitate DFO we cannot rehabilitate the fishery.

DFO and DFO management has to be rehabilitated in that they are a major problem to overcome in resolving many fishery issues. Cohen did not appear to properly address the DFO management problem but if he is astute and reads between the lines he does have to highlight that as a real problem. I doubt if he will. 

Was Cohen advised not to be too critical of DFO? Prime Minister Stephen Harper did resist a full public inquiry and I am certain his thinking was – “if I am to have an inquiry it had better not embarrass my government or my ministers.” DFO did oppose a public inquiry for years until Harper finally gave into the pressure of MP John Cummins (Cummins personal communications 2010).

The Cohen Commission did have great inherent weaknesses. First of all they overloaded their ranks with lawyers and made a public hearing process into an overly controlled and straight-jacketed legal process and at times appeared even more restrictive than a criminal court case. Cohen noted that he did not want the Inquiry room to be a courthouse but that is indeed how it was run. It was not democratic or transparent and was totally control-oriented – a legal community approach that was not in the public nor fishery best interests! 

The Commission set up a expert panel and then dismissed it for all the wrong reasons. They badly needed an unbiased technical advisory panel but resorted to select studies done by often unqualified consultants. They did not consult with the public and often ignored those that had legal standing in these issues.

The basis of engagement was not made clear until we were several months into the Inquiry. I was given legal standing but totally obstructed in any attempt to be a witness. The Cohen Inquiry alone determined what they wanted to hear and selected the witnesses accordingly – it was channeled evidence.

Many hours of exam were wasted on irrelevant issues and then when we got into key material directly related to sockeye survival those with standing were most often restricted to a few minutes of cross examination. That was truly unfortunate. It is well known that it is more time efficient to make your point with your own witness than to overturn misleading testimony when one was restricted to a few minutes of cross-exam. Few trials would be run in such a manner.

The Inquiry staff prepared their own background discussion papers that were often in great need of editing and were not factually correct. To make matters worse they then hired a dozen consultants to do their own ‘research’ papers vs. having a technical expert advisory panel. Some of these papers were very non-scientific and a few were actually an embarrassment to science and the Inquiry. In one study, the Commission lawyer even attacked their own hired author so as to distance themselves from the terrible work they had done. Despite that, select studies such as that by Dr. Scott Hinch were excellent.

Certain Inquiry staff at times functioned as inexperienced staff and little wonder that some unqualified consultants were hired and taxpayer money was wasted. The public interest could have been better served if Cohen had designed a Northern Gateway Pipeline-type hearing; i.e. more open, democratic and accountable.

The Commission even appeared to use some witnesses and asked them to present testimony they did not want to present. For instance Dr. G. Hartman got upset with them and told them to get lost and refused to be a witness. Another witness refused to return to the Inquiry and said spending time in his cabin was more relevant!

I did my best to be a witness to get a number of issues before them but was told they “did not want anyone that was critical of DFO”, even though they gave me and ENGOs legal standing and hundreds of thousands of dollars to have legal representation. In one case they wanted one of my studies on Fraser River gravel mining but asked another expert to take my study and rewrite and remove all comments critical of DFO and put his name on it as though he was the author of the study. That was unethical!

A real problem was that at least 70% of the witnesses were from DFO and many were not experts and really presented a smoke-and-mirrors story on how enforcement was done, the new ecosystems approach, etc. This came from experts like DM Dansereau and DFO and DOE Ottawa ‘experts’ on enforcement. Why did the Inquiry require Dr. Bombardier from Environment Canada to appear as their enforcement expert when she had no enforcement background and only had been in her job for six months? She was indeed opposed to enforcement as a compliance tool. Often the testimony was misleading and very political in nature.

Considering the above – why should one expect a $26million high quality and balanced product that will make a big difference in the ocean and river where the fish live? I do not feel Cohen will fully address the DFO and a politically directed decision making process where most management problems are most often born. If Cohen does make some good conclusions and recommendations (and he will), how can that affect or direct what Harper and DFO will do, considering the passing of Bill C-38 in June 2012 and the changes they made since the Inquiry concluded.

We have just learned that we will not have any habitat protection staff and DFO habitat protection offices on the sockeye salmon Fraser River migratory and spawning/rearing areas anywhere on the Fraser River other than 5 junior staff in Kamloops. Staff and offices in Prince George, Blue River, Salmon Arm, Quesnel, Williams Lake, Lillooett, Chilliwack and New Westminster will be eliminated. If Cohen knew that this was about to happen, his report could be different, i.e. some of his evidence is already well out of date. Any significant (permanent ) habitat destruction incident on the sockeye system will now be responded to out of Winnipeg or Burlington.

Would Justice Cohen have been happy with that arrangement?

Cohen and staff could have done a much better job in hearing more balanced evidence and he is now stuck with the evidence he has heard. Some evidence was very sub-standard, i.e. habitat, ecosystems effects, enforcement, etc. Despite that comment, some of the evidence was complete, such as wild salmon policy, temperature issues, fish farming, etc. However, in that the hearing was overly directed and it was a closed process as dictated by Cohen staff, some of the best evidence was not heard, such as the great political interference in undermining science, terrible DFO hiring practices, overly-centralized directions from Ottawa, management shortcomings, etc. 

Finally, Cohen will be hog tied on some issues, such as global warming and temperatures, which are very valid and priority issues. What can he say other than it is an issue and we need more science as government cuts this capability in DFO and elsewhere in government? Cohen will be barking up an empty tree as the Harper (and BC and Alberta) governments do everything to promote more fossil fuel development that will facilitate global warming and undermine long-term salmon survival. Many of the salmon survival issues have to be addressed at the international, federal and BC levels. Under our present system of governance and cooperative problem solving, Cohen will make little impact on this much-needed larger, ecosystem-wide approach to protect and conserve life such as sockeye salmon on this planet.

DFO and the Harper Government really cut Cohen off at the knees and I feel they have treated this Commission with contempt and their actions have left Cohen and his report already a bit on the back shelf.  DFO can dismiss much of Cohen in that they can now say that some of his information is out of date and DFO has already directed many changes to re-direct where DFO is going.

I do hope I am wrong in believing that the Cohen report will do little to change DFO and the politics related to protecting our natural world and salmon survival. The politics have created a very tilted playing field and as with many other inquiries tackling this salmon problem, one will probably soon forget about the Cohen Inquiry as we have done with the John Fraser and Justice Williams reports.

We must appreciate that the Cohen Inquiry is the really big Granddaddy inquiry into this issue but can it or will it recommend solutions or see action on its recommendations to solve the really big issues facing sockeye and most fishery issues? A report may be great but it means little if it does not effect change, i.e. implementation is the real challenge!

The power to make those changes is now in the hands of government and that is where we can even have much greater reservations of what can or will happen. DFO will probably pick off the ripe low fruit that will support what they want to do and ignore the rest. Meanwhile, DFO and the Harper government will stubbornly go in their own direction as determined by the rigid control and less than scientific approach as seen in many other similar matters in the past few years.

The comments of the ‘original author’ of the Inquiry, ex Conservative MP and fisheries critic John Cummings should be interesting. He seemed to give up on it soon after it began. It is odd that we can sometimes build a process from a good idea but it soon gains its own life and goes in another direction and we then feel we have created a monster that will not fulfill the basic needs it was designed to address. 

The Inquiry spent millions collecting thousands of documents, and putting them into a digital library which was guarded with great secrecy and unavailable to the public. In that the Inquiry is now over and this is a taxpayer-funded product, it must be arranged for that large and expensive collection be put into a public library.

Meanwhile the taxpayer struggles to pay for this multimillion dollar Inquiry into a problem that should address the many fishery problems for future generations so they can enjoy the existence of what is a key part of BC – abundant salmon populations in our healthy rivers.  

Otto E. Langer, Fishery Biologist and Aquatic Ecologist – Oct. 27, 2012


Justice Cohen Refuses to Re-open Commission to Examine New Salmon Virus Evidence


The following is a statement from Alexandra Morton:

(May 17, 2012)  Justice Cohen ruled today that he will not reopen his Inquiry into the Decline of the Fraser Sockeye citing the amount of work the commission team is faced with to meet the twice-delayed September 30, 2012 delivery date. The Commission notes that they have heard evidence on disease.

The application to reopen the Inquiry was made by the Aquaculture Coalition (Alexandra Morton) after discovery that nearly 100% of BC farm salmon are testing positive for the Norwegian piscine reovirus.  Research published as recently as April 12, 2012 confirms association between this virus and a disease called Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI). The application to hear evidence on this disease was supported by the First Nations Coalition, the Cheam Indian Band and Conservation Coalition.

HSMI weakens heart muscle causing heart failure in salmon.  It has spread quickly through Norway. Norwegian scientist Dr. Are Nylund reports the BC farm salmon tissue he has examined is infected with the Norwegian piscine reovirus.  The only plausible explanation for presence of this Norwegian virus in BC farm salmon is that it arrived in the 30 million Atlantic salmon eggs imported into BC since 1986 by the salmon farming industry.

Nearly 100% of Atlantic salmon bought this spring from Fairway Market in Victoria, T & T markets in Vancouver and Superstores tested positive for this heart virus.  While Mary Ellen Walling of the BC Salmon Farmers Association is quoted saying they never see the affects of this virus, Dr. Gary Marty, the BC Provincial fish farm vet, says it is common, that he found it in 75% of the farm salmon he tested in 2010.

Despite the Province of BC finding this virus in farm salmon and its reputation for being highly contagious, Dr. Michael Kent of Oregon State University, ex-director of the DFO Pacific Biological Station never even mentioned it in his Technical Report Number One which he was hired to write for the Commission titled “Infectious Disease and Potential Impacts on Survival of Fraser River Sockeye Salmon”.

 “Which is it? Common or never seen,” asks Alexandra Morton, biologist, “This has become ridiculous. I don’t believe Dr. Marty’s test results referred to in the media recently were ever submitted to the Cohen Inquiry. Certainly, ex-DFO scientist Michael Kent never even mentioned this disease, even though up to 90% of Fraser sockeye are going missing after they pass Mission. Imagine trying to swim against Hells Gate with a virus that causes heart failure? How is that going to work out for you? In my view, this is exactly the same issue as DFO never mentioning to Justice Cohen that they found European ISA virus in 100% of the Cultus Lake sockeye.  The most lethal salmon virus found in 100% of the most endangered sockeye stock and DFO never told the $26 million commission we paid for into the loss of sockeye?”

It was Dr. Gary Marty’s employer, the Province of BC, that opposed the application to reopen the Inquiry. The piscine reovirus is carried in the flesh of the fish and so it could be washed down the drain into watersheds wherever farm salmon are sold and washed prior to cooking.

 “There are European viruses in BC farm salmon and they are spreading to wild salmon. The longer BC and Canada refuse to acknowledge this, the greater the risk these viruses will ignite an epidemic that will finish off BC’s wild salmon. I understand Justice Cohen being exhausted, but that is no excuse. DFO either lied on the stand when they said there was no ISAv in BC, or they hid it from their own people, ” says Alexandra Morton, “but fact is we never heard about it until the inquiry reopened and an independent scientist sent the secret report to the Inquiry.  This cover-up is so extensive it feels hopeless. Cohen just made his report outdated before it is even released. Communities should consider becoming farm salmon-free to prevent the spread of this virus into their watersheds.”

Morton continues to test for European viruses in BC until the money runs out.


Tests Confirm New Salmon Virus in Canadian Farmed Salmon Marketplace


Read this story from The Province on the confirmation of piscine rheovirus in farmed salmon sold in BC supermarkets. (April 14, 2012)

A newly identified Norwegian virus that affects salmon has made its way into Canadian markets, with test results confirming the presence of the virus in 44 out of 45 farmed salmon bought from Vancouver supermarkets.

The piscine reovirus, which causes heart and skeletal muscle inflammation in salmon, was found in fish bought by advocacy group SalmonAreSacred.org. The stores’ seafood departments told the group the fish were B.C.-raised farmed salmon, SalmonAreSacred said in a news release.

Alexandra Morton, the biologist who discovered the infected fish, questioned if that information from store staff was accurate.

The virus is considered a “major challenge” in Norway, infecting more than 400 farms since its first appearance in 1999. Since then, it has also spread to the U.K, and as of last year, Chile.

“If they were imported, that is a huge concern,” said Morton.

The origin of the infected fish, which has yet to be confirmed, will dictate whether the Canadian fish industry is at risk or if imports need a more thorough scanning process. The virus has not yet been found in Canadian farmed or wild fish populations, Morton suggested, but she is fearful it will show up.

Based on the diversity in the shape and size of the fish, Morton’s impression is that they’re coming from different farms.

“I bought these fish from several different stores on several different days and they all are coming up positive with the virus,” she said. “They also looked different — long and skinny in some stores and quite large in others.”

She said the salmon could have come from a number of places, including Norway, Chile and Eastern Canada, although there is no proof of the virus’ existence there.

Morton explained that identifying the source of the salmon, whether imported or not, is “very important,” as the disease itself could live in just an egg.

“These are questions that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Department of Fisheries and Oceans should be answering, and potentially the supermarket.”

She said the solution that the industry should be imposing is to identify the source of the disease, temporarily contain it, then kill off the infected fish — all in a transparent process.


Willful Blindness and Sick Salmon – Lessons from Cohen Commission


The mystery of the disappearing wild salmon may be closer to being solved due to the reconvened Cohen Commission and the extraordinary three days of hearings held in December, 2011. As earlier testimony revealed, many environmental factors affect the survival of wild salmon but imported diseases from the aquaculture industry may be the largest single cause of their decline. A plausible scenario now explains how these diseases could have arrived in our West Coast ecology.

Evidence now confirms that government policy supports the salmon farming industry, and that the industry has been willing to exploit this advantage to win regulatory concessions for its economic gain – in the words of one Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) official, the industry seemed “to dictate” policy. These concessions included relaxed importation, inspection and quarantine of Atlantic salmon eggs, and inadequate supervision of fish health.

Summary statements written by Gregory McDade and Lisa Glowaki, two of the lawyers representing Alexandra Morton at the inquiry, describe how DFO failed to pursue evidence indicating that ISAv was in wild salmon, despite an independent 2004 test that suggested all Cultus Lake sockeye were infected. “Instead it buried the results completely for seven years,” notes the summary, and “decided to not test any further wild salmon. This reaction is not consistent with the scientific method or a precautionary approach – rather it shows action of a political nature – denial and suppression of an inconvenient fact. In legal terms, it is known as willful blindness, also characterized in some circumstances as gross negligence.” This opinion is reinforced by DFO’s failure to submit any ISAv documentation to the Commission.

McDade and Glowaki suggest that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) was also implicated in this scheme of “willful blindness”. It had no interest in the well-being of wild salmon per se; its mandate was to monitor diseases and promote the economic value of food products. Fish diseases were inconveniences that complicated this commercial objective. ISAv was a reportable infection that would have alerted trade partners and the international community to risk, thereby incurring trade damage. “Safe trade” is the subject of testimony given by Dr. Kim Klotins, a senior CFIA official, to Krista Robertson, a lawyer acting for First Nations:

Robertson: “But is it also part of the mandate of the CFIA to ensure that… trade interests of Canadian companies or companies operating in Canada such as Norwegian fish farm companies, are not harmed by any kind of finding or allegation of disease?”

Dr. Klotins: “So if, let’s say, we do find ISA in B.C. and all of a sudden markets are closed, our role [CFIA] is then to try to renegotiate or negotiate market access to those countries. Now what it will be is a matter of they’ll let us know what the requirements are. 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.”

In other words, the discovery of ISAv in BC wild or farmed salmon could be an economic disaster that could even end trade in fish products. The CFIA didn’t want to find ISAv, and the evidence suggests it took active measures to confiscate fish samples that indicated ISAv was here. DFO – which supported the salmon farming industry – didn’t want to find ISAv either, and took active measures to hide findings and suppress research that would have exposed it. And the salmon farming industry certainly didn’t want to discover ISAv in its brood stock or net-pens – such a discovery would have had devastating environmental, market and public relations ramifications.

So, why did salmon farmers not find ISAv in their testing of more than 4,700 samples of farmed fish? The sole veterinarian testing their fish was Dr. Gary Marty, who noted more than 1,100 instances of lesions that were commensurate with ISAv, but he always recorded negative results for the viral infection. The industry, therefore, could confidently announce, as it frequently did, “that the ISA virus has never been found in British Columbia” (Times-Colonist, Dec. 16/11).

McDade and Glowaki explain this puzzle. First, not all ISAv strains are lethal so salmon farms might not notice high mortality. Like an influenza, it can exist as a low level infection that only becomes virulent when it mutates – particularly in high population densities at fish farms and hatcheries. But ISAv does impair fish health – especially wild fish in stressful survival conditions – and it leaves identifiable cellular markers. This is what the genomic specialists Drs. Kristi Miller, Fredrick Kibenge and Are Nylund found in their independent sampling of wild salmon tissue – they couldn’t find it in farmed salmon because the industry thwarted efforts to test these fish.

Was the salmon farming industry concealing evidence of ISAv? Not exactly. The following is the McDade and Glowaki technical explanation: “The evidence is now clear that Dr. Marty was conducting PCR tests with no confirmed validity. His PCR test was developed in-house, by a master’s student. This methodology used a primer that was different from that approved by the OIE or by the Moncton lab. It was a primer that had never been through the validation process, nor even apparently a peer-reviewed publication. Dr. Kibenge testified that in his opinion this test would not be sensitive to finding ISA.” So the “self-invented” test had no validity and “in our respectful submission, this ‘non-disclosure’ is tantamount to deliberate deception”. Since the salmon farming industry didn’t want to find ISAv, DFO had chosen to be “willfully blind” by relying only on the invalid testing of this single lab, and the CFIA was contented to avoid the complexities of discovering ISAv, no such disease was ever found by anyone responsible for detecting it.

The ISAv evidence will eventually be weighed by Judge Bruce Cohen. But the virus is now in the realm of public awareness, and the seismic effects could eventually shake the salmon farming industry, the wild fishery, and the government agencies that were supposed to be safeguarding an invaluable marine ecology.


Salmon Politics and the Egg Trade


The source of the infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAv) now being found in BC’s wild salmon is almost certainly from imported Atlantic salmon eggs, the international trade that has provided coastal salmon farms with most of their stock. The salmon farming industry, of course, is still denying that ISAv is here, although evidence given at the Cohen Commission’s extraordinary three days of hearings on December 15th, 16th and 19th essentially obliterates that defence.

Of four labs testing for ISAv in wild fish samples, the only one seemingly unable to find it is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s facility in Moncton, New Brunswick, a lab whose detection capability is known by experts to be notoriously insensitive and inconsistent – an inaccuracy compounded by attempting to use degraded tissue samples. Research tests by a reputable lab in 2004 found 100 percent infection in Cultus Lake sockeye – inexplicably never pursued by federal agencies responsible for the health of wild salmon. Testimony from Dr. Kristi Miller showing genomic markers in archaic samples of BC wild salmon indicates that ISAv has been here since 1986.

Documents presented at the Cohen Commission suggest that the arrival of ISAv coincides with the early importation of Atlantic salmon eggs to West Coast salmon farms. Supporting this connection is a recorded litany of warnings from experts in BC’s Ministry of Environment (MOE) and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), all alarmed about the inherent danger of importing exotic diseases to the West Coast ecology through Atlantic salmon eggs. This evidence is worth noting.

  • 1982: representatives of Canada’s government meet with Norwegian and Canadian business interests to consider “alternative approaches to inspection and certification of salmon culture facilities” for the importation of Atlantic salmon material from Norway.
  • 1984: Canada’s DFO approves limited importation of Atlantic salmon material, an event that is not announced publicly.
  •  1985: 300,000 eggs are imported, subject to a “Draft Importation of Salmonids Policy” requiring a 12 month quarantine. But Dave Narver of MOE expresses concern to his Assistant Deputy Minister about the policy. “I am getting increasingly anxious about our importing of Atlantic eggs,” he writes. “My concern is shared by many of my colleagues in both provincial and federal agencies. The fish health measures agreed to jointly by DFO and ourselves in the fall of 1984 are not foolproof. They are based on statistical sampling, so we are taking a risk when it comes to the introductions of virus. That means a risk to the nearly one-billion-dollar wild salmonid fisheries of British Columbia.” An additional 130,000 Atlantic salmon eggs are imported from Scotland.
  • 1986: Narver reiterates his concerns to Pacific Aqua Foods about an unsigned and non-public policy. “We are deeply concerned with the fact that the risk of exotic diseases is dependent on both the number of imports and their size. Government has made a commitment to support aquaculture, but surely not at the risk of a nearly $1 billion resource in the wild salmon fisheries of British Columbia. The direction the aquaculture industry wants us to go will insure that we import unwanted diseases that can impact on government hatcheries and wild stocks.” Narver sends a similar letter of concern to Stolt Sea Farm Canada Inc. “To start with a general comment, I am disappointed with what appears to be the prevailing attitude of a number of companies, that fish health regulations to protect wild stocks are great, but if we continue the way the aquaculture industry seems to dictate, we can expect to introduce new diseases.” 1,144,000 eggs are imported from Scotland.
  • 1987: Federal-Provincial Policy for the Importation of Live Salmonids is signed, but quarantine time is reduced to 4 months to reduce the industry’s cost of dealing with waste water. Pat Chamut of DFO expresses a trade concern. “If challenged in court over denial of any imports, what is the legal likelihood we would be successful in denying imports?” 1,281,000 eggs are imported from Scotland and Washington State.
  • 1990: Salmon farmers in the US claim Canada’s import restrictions are a trade barrier. Chamut reiterates his concerns to the Policy Division of Pacific Rim and Trade. “Continued large-scale introductions from areas of the world including Washington State, Scotland, Norway and even eastern Canada would eventually result in the introduction of exotic disease agents of which the potential impact on both cultured and wild salmonids in BC could be both biologically damaging to the resource and economically devastating to its user groups.”
  • 1991: Numerous warnings are written by DFO and MOE officials, all concerning the dangers of importing diseases from foreign salmon eggs – a danger compounded by trade agreements allowing the salmon farming industry to import larger numbers of eggs. Narver’s letter from MOE to DFO is typical for 1991. “The proposed revisions not only open the window indefinitely but essentially allow for unlimited numbers of eggs. I know your Department argues that this has to done to avoid a Free Trade ruling.” Subsequent to these warnings comes a 1991 letter from BC Packers’ Director of Aquaculture to DFO. “As we have no other disease-free source available [other than Iceland] anywhere in the world, I am requesting that you reconsider your position, particularly in the light of the expected change in the DFO regulations.” Regulations are duly relaxed and from 1991 to 2010 at least 23 million eggs are imported into BC waters, mostly from sources other than Iceland.

This evidence from the Cohen Commission confirms that international sources of eggs were known to be rife with disease and that the aquaculture industry was perfectly willing to import these eggs, despite known risks and repeated warnings. Given trade agreements and the political leverage of the salmon farming industry to reduce precautionary regulations – the direction it “seems to dictate”, in Dave Narver’s damning words – the arrival of ISAv and other exotic diseases in BC’s marine ecology was inevitable.


Salmon Virus Cover-up About Protecting Markets, Not Fish


Judge Bruce Cohen obviously thought that recent evidence of the Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISAv) in BC’s wild salmon was serious enough to warrant a reconvening of his Commission of inquiry into the mysterious disappearance of Fraser River sockeye. The three days of exceptional December hearings were revelatory, confusing and clarifying. We have ISAv in BC waters but we don’t have disease. We have different labs getting positive and negative test results on the same fish samples. We have critically important research curtailed just when such vital information is most needed. We have intimations of openness in a practice of obstruction and censure. And we have huge financial benefits accruing to corporate interests if BC’s farmed and wild salmon can be marketed free of the stigma of disease.

The salmon farming industry has been habitually skewing information to bolster its practices and image – it’s been doing this for decades. And, as recent history has revealed, the credibility of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been compromised by its conflicting mandates of managing wild salmon and promoting salmon farming. Now we discover that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has its own conflicting mandates of suppressing pathogens while enhancing marketing opportunities for fish products. Consequently, when a viral disease is reported and the commercial value of fish is threatened, the CFIA assumes a defensive position by questioning the findings of the testing labs, by re-testing the degraded samples of infected fish with its notoriously inaccurate technology, and then recording “inconclusive” results as “negative”.

This strategy is evident in an e-mail from a CFIA executive, Joseph Beres, to his colleagues, congratulating them on a conference call to the media that was intended to quell concerns about allegations of ISAv in BC salmon. “It is clear that we are turning the PR tide to our favour,” he writes, “and this is because of the very successful performance of our spokes at the Tech Briefing yesterday…Congratulations! One battle is won, now we have to nail the surveillance piece, and we will win the war also.” This is the response of a promoter concerned about reputation and market, not the response of a scientist concerned about the danger of an ecosystem-threatening virus.

This might explain why the CFIA didn’t submit to the Cohen Commission evidence of ISAv in more than 100 wild salmon a decade ago. And why DFO advised its molecular geneticist, Dr. Kristi Miller, to curtail her research on ISAv – precisely the opposite of how prudence and science should respond to such an urgent situation.

Indeed, the Cohen Commission has exposed a systemic history of closeted secretiveness, hidden motives and contrived deception, all exposed since the initial October revelation that ISAv has been found in wild BC salmon. Dr. Sally Goldes, a 17-year fish health section head for the BC Environment Ministry, testified during the reconvened Cohen inquiry that “current Canada Fish Health Protection Rules do not provide a high level of regulatory security against the introduction of ISAv into British Columbia.” To underscore her concern, she noted, “If you really look closely at the regulations, from a scientific basis, there is not the high degree of protection that the government, and particularly DFO, states that they have.” In her opinion, the DFO and CFIA press conference that announced no ISAv in BC “was entirely premature.” In other words, ISAv could have leaked into BC waters from Atlantic egg sources used by salmon farms, and government agencies are systematically hiding that possibility.

Dr. Kristi Miller, one of the key DFO scientists in this process, took the initiative to do her own testing on wild and farmed salmon. She concluded that an ISA virus, or something that is 95 percent similar to the strain afflicting farmed Atlantic salmon in Norway, Scotland, Maritime Canada and Chile, is present in BC waters. And her review of DFO’s archival fish samples shows that markers for ISAv have been present in BC since 1986 – shortly after Atlantic salmon were first farmed here. A study by Dr. Molly Kibenge suggested that ISAv was here in 2004. Despite a UN convention that requires “evidence or suspicion” of ISAv to be reported, this was never done. Neither was evidence of ISAv reported to the initial phase of the Cohen Commission hearings.

Complicating the issue is a technical definition of “disease”. The CFIA takes the position that a suite of characteristics are needed to classify ISAv as such. Dr. Miller recognized this criterion in her testimony to the Commission when she said, “And obviously we have not established that [ISAv] causes disease.” Without evidence of dying or debilitated fish, there is no “disease”. But evidence does exist. A postdoctoral fellow working with Dr. Miller, Brad Davis, notes ample data suggesting “that the virus is causing enough damage to elicit a strong response in salmon…. Therefore, we cannot at this point assume that this virus does not cause disease in these fish.” Regular reports cite adult Fraser River salmon inexplicably dying as they migrate upstream, sometimes just days before spawning. Cultus Lake salmon have long been exhibiting the same strange behaviour. Until now, no explanation has been available.

The CFIA has pledged to investigate by subjecting 7,700 salmon to more than 20,000 tests over the next two years. But this does not promise to clarify the mystery of BC’s disappearing wild salmon. The CFIA’s self-declared “surveillance objectives are to determine the absence/presence of three diseases of trade significance… [and] to support international trade negotiations by making [a] disease-freedom declaration that will stand international scrutiny.” If the CFIA’s version of science is to start with a trade-friendly conclusion and then research to support it, this does not bode well for BC’s wild salmon and the entire marine ecology founded on this iconic fish.


Vancouver Sun Op-ed: Fraser Sockeye Dying of Politics


Read this op-ed in The Vancouver Sun by Dr. Craig Orr and Stan Proboszcz of Watershed Watch, which provides a compelling summary in the wake of the Cohen Commission of the political dynamics threatening Fraser River sockeye. (Dec 27, 2011)

Sockeye are plagued by a lack of food, lax pollution standards, ineffective habitat protection efforts, archaic water laws, harmful hydro impacts, unjustified riverbed mining, a “modernized” Fisheries Act, illegal fishing, subpar catch monitoring, and debilitating climate change. Unlucky Oncorhynchus nerka must also swim a gauntlet of non-selective nets, predators, toxic algae blooms, and pathogen-bearing fish farms — all for an increasingly slim chance to spawn and die.

If these stresses weren’t troubling enough, the federal review of Fraser sockeye woes recently reopened to testimony about positive tests for the infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAv) in wild and farmed salmon. Indeed, despite vigorous government assurances to the contrary, compelling evidence suggests this virus has been here for some time. Governments’ reaction to the news — and to leaks that they had known of a possible virus for nearly a decade — prompts one to fear that wild salmon ranked disturbingly low on their list of priorities.

Reaction to reports of a virus associated with salmon farms predictably meant strident denial among Canada’s regulators, followed by something more insidious. Governments seemed less inclined to act on disease and public concerns, and more intent on firing back at the scientists who reported ISAv positives. Judge Bruce Cohen was told scientists felt “intimidated,” “attacked,” and “alienated.” Samples were seized, methods publicly questioned, labs audited. Fisheries ministers unleashed media releases chastising highly accredited academics for “reckless behaviour” and “unsound science.”

Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/Fraser%20sockeye%20being%20hung%20politicians/5916281/story.html?mid=56534