B.C. salmon had virus as far back as 1985: report
A spawning sockeye salmon is seen making its way up the Adams River in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park near Chase, B.C. on Oct. 4, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Published Thursday, December 15, 2011 6:53PM EST
VANCOUVER - There are indications that for decades now salmon in British Columbia may have been carrying a virus that wiped out stocks in Norway and Chile, but experts don't know if it will have the same devastating results.
Four pre-eminent fish scientists relayed their suspicions during an extraordinary meeting of the Cohen Commission, which has spent 21 months investigating the sharp decline of B.C.'s Fraser River sockeye.
The commission reconvened after the alarming discovery by a Simon Fraser University professor of infectious salmon anaemia in two smolts in northern B.C.
Kristi Miller, who heads a molecular genetics lab for the federal Fisheries Department, joined two other Canadians and a Norwegian on a panel appearing before the commission.
"I clearly believe that there is a virus here that is very similar to ISA virus in Europe, but we really do need to get a fuller sequence to get more information about how similar it is," said Miller.
"Also, we have not established that it causes disease."
Miller gave evidence Thursday in the first of three days of the special sitting to discuss infectious salmon anaemia.
Her submissions came from research conducted in her Nanaimo, B.C., laboratory. She noted the testing procedures were not standard and differed from another government-funded lab on the East Coast, but suggested her tests could be more sensitive.
Miller told the inquiry that she has not only tested recent samples of fish, but went back into her massive archive and ran the same procedure on fish from 1986 and found a similar pattern.
"Which suggests that not only has this been here for at least 25 years, but it's been here probably quite considerably longer than that," she said.
Some research indicates Pacific salmon could be resistant to the virus.
ISA, an influenza-like virus, has killed millions of fish in Chile after it's believed to have been transported from Norway, where it was first discovered in the 1980s.
Government scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Canadian Food Inspection Agency moved to assuage fears by conducting further tests. Along with the Fisheries Minister, they announced the virus had not been detected and said public agencies will nonetheless develop a new surveillance plan to watch more closely for fish diseases.
The panel of scientists agreed more research needs to be done.
"In this case, I don't know where we are at this point because we do not have enough information, but it could really be that we are looking at another ISA that was there for a long time," said Nellie Gagne, a molecular biology scientist who leads a Department of Fisheries lab in Moncton, N.B.
"It's an interesting theory that I'm keen to see more work done on."
Gagne said her own lab had not turned up any samples she would consider positive, but noted that the lab uses "universal" test methods that look for known strains.
"If there are others, we don't know about it," she said.
Fred Kibenge, who works at the Atlantic Veterinary College which runs the reference lab for the virus in P.E.I., conducted the initial tests that came up with positive results on two smolts publicized widely in October.
He told the inquiry he believes the recent testing conducted by himself and Miller is "overwhelming" evidence of the virus. He also tried to substantiate an unpublished study from 2004 -- conducted in part by his wife -- that was leaked to media last month.
It concluded an asymptomatic form of the virus was occurring in some wild-salmon species in the north Pacific.
Kibenge noted the results that emerged from Miller's lab means that his wife's earlier tests may yet be credible.
However, one scientists came out strongly opposing the results found in Miller's lab.
"We have a lot of indications that the virus could be present in Pacific salmon, but there is no hard evidence," said Are Nylund, a professor with the department of biology at the University of Bergen in Norway.
Nylund, who has studied the virus for years, described Miller's testing procedures as "a bit strange."
He did note he believes the virus could spread from eastern Canada, where it has infected Atlantic salmon, to the West Coast, similar to the theorized transfer of the virus from Norway to Chile.