Lethal salmon virus now detected in four species

The Province, 3 November 2011 By Sean Sullivan, Postmedia News

A lethal virus that could pose a new threat to British Columbia's prized Pacific salmon has now been detected in four wild species, prompting fears about its effect on the multi-billion-dollar fishery.

On Wednesday, biologist and salmon advocate Alexandra Morton learned an infectious salmon amenia (ISA) lab at the Atlantic Veterinary College in P.E.I. found evidence of the virus in three of 10 dead fish — a Chinook, coho and chum — she pulled from the Harrison River on Oct. 12.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University announced last month the virus was found in two of 48 sockeye smolts collected in B.C.'s Central Coast.

"The terrible thing about the work that myself and (SFU researcher Rick) Routledge have done is that it's tiny," Morton said. "We looked at 60 fish, and we got it in two different generations, 600 kilometres apart, four different species. That's a huge red flag."

ISA's effect on Pacific salmon — if any — is not known. This is the first time the disease has been found in wild Pacific salmon, raising fears among advocates that the already stressed wild stocks could be further jeopardized.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said Morton's samples are now being tested in Canada's official ISA lab in Moncton, N.B.

Vancouver-area MP Fin Donnelly, raised the issue in Ottawa Thursday, calling on the government to develop an action plan to deal with the virus on Canada's West Coast.

"Concern is mounting both in British Columbia and the United States that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is not taking this threat seriously," the New Democrat fisheries critic said.

Meanwhile, a group of U.S. senators released a letter saying Canadian officials can't be trusted to identify the presence of ISA virus.

In a letter to Senate decision-makers Wednesday, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich of Alaska argued the United States should conduct independent tests for the contagious disease that has decimated Atlantic salmon farms in Chile and Norway.

"We should not rely on another government — particularly one that may have a motive to misrepresent its findings — to determine how we assess the risk ISA may pose to American fishery jobs," the senators said.

Some have suggested the virus may have come from Atlantic salmon eggs imported to local fish farms from Chile or Norway.

Salmon farmers have been quick to shoot down those claims, as has the federal government. "In recent years we tested over 5,000 wild and farmed B.C. salmon without a single case of confirmed ISA in B.C.," Randy Kamp, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said Thursday.

Chile, a major producer of farmed Atlantic Salmon, has seen its wild fish stocks decimated by ISA over the last four years, with $2 billion in estimated losses.

© The Province