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Something fishy about Canada’s response to salmon virus

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Dec. 4, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
December 2, 2011 5:05 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

In October, a British Columbia professor sent a chill through Northwest fishery circles. He claimed to have found traces of a potentially devastating virus in two wild sockeye taken from waters in northern British Columbia.

The virus – infectious salmon anemia (ISA) – has killed millions of farmed salmon in Europe and Chile. The great fear here in the Northwest is that somehow it will develop in one of the many salmon farms along the B.C. coast and be transmitted to wild salmon.

Now comes a bombshell that threatens to damage the relationship between the United State and Canada on fishery issues.

Almost a decade ago, it turns out, a different scientist told Canadian officials that she had detected a European strain of ISA in 117 wild fish from Alaska to Vancouver Island. However, none of the fish were sick. That led the fish biologist, Molly Kibenge, to surmise that a nonlethal form of ISA may be present in Northwest wild salmon.

The fear with ISA has always been that it could mutate into a lethal form. Yet Canadian fishery officials failed to follow up on Kibenge’s research and neglected to inform their American counterparts of her findings. The only reason the news is getting out now is that Kibenge and her husband, a noted fish virologist, went public after her request to publish her old data was denied.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the agency tasked both with protecting wild fish and promoting B.C. salmon farms, claims that Kibenge’s tests were in error. All 117? U.S. fish virologists say her work appears sound, and they doubt that all the samples could have had false positives for the virus.

So why didn’t Canadian officials follow up on Kibenge’s 2002 research? Could it be that had the findings been confirmed, Canada would have been required to report it to the World Organization for Animal Health? That might have led to restrictions on expansion of B.C.’s salmon aquaculture.

From the outside, at least, it appears that  Fisheries and Oceans Canada favored promotion of salmon farms over protecting wild stocks – and communicating with their U.S. counterparts.

Given the fact that so many American fishery jobs could be impacted, Canadian officials have an obligation to share all the information from 2002 and to be more forthcoming in the future with research findings that affect Pacific Northwest fish.

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