Infectious Salmon Anemia: Getting the Jump
by Joel Connelly
West Coast senators, promoted by discovery of a virus in British Columbia salmon, are telling federal fisheries agencies: Get moving on Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) before it moves on us.
"In the past, it has moved through salmon populations with devastating quickness . . . The mistakes made in Norway and Chile were not to respond quickly enough," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Seattle, said in Seattle on Sunday after meeting with federal, state and tribal fisheries officials.
"What is particularly important is that the U.S. has its own scientific evidence so we can have our own response plan," Cantwell added. "To have our own response plan, we need to have our own scientific evaluation."
Salmon are not only an iconic presence in the Northwest, but remain a big deal economically -- despite decimation of runs by dam construction, overfishing and shoddy logging practices.
A recent study of Pacific salmon estimated the wholesale value of the annual sport and commercial catch comes to at least $2.2 billion, and supports 35,000 jobs in harvesting and processing.
Infectious salmon anemia poses no danger to human health. Once salmon populations are infected, however, the disease quickly reaches a "tipping point" where it can't be stopped.
A total of 9.6 million farmed salmon had to be destroyed in New Brunswick to halt one outbreak.
The deadly virus was initially found in two sockeye smolts taken about 400 miles up the British Columbia coast from Vancouver. Subsequently, the ISA virus was found in the fins of three adult salmon -- a Chinook, a chum and a coho -- taken out of the Harrison River in the Fraser Valley early last month.
"This is the first time this virus has been detected in the Northwest," Dr. James Winton, chief of the fish health section of the Western Fisheries Research Center said in Seattle on Sunday.
The sockeye smolts were sent by Simon Fraser University to be tested at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island, which has subsequently tested the Harrison River salmon.
But additional testing on the sockeye smolts, done at the University of Bergen in Norway, was not able to confirm the findings.
"The test material we received was of poor quality and all tests were negative except the one which was weakly positive," reported Dr. Arne Nylund, who conducted the tests.
Dr. Winton echoed Nylund's opinion. "These samples were not in high quality and they were collected for another purpose," Winton said.
Discovery of the virus has set off a furious debate in British Columbia: The provincial and Canadian governments have encouraged and supported salmon farming: Atlantic salmon are being farmed in pens near fjords and river systems (e.g. Knight Inlet, Kingcome Inlet) that support major runs of wild Pacific Salmon.
Salmon migrating south out of the Gulf of Alaska through Johnstone Strait pass millions of salmon being raised in pens in the Broughton Archipelago off the B.C. Mainland, and near Campbell River on Vancouver Island.
In a tough letter last week, the bipartisan Senate trio -- Cantwell and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) indicated the Canadian government could not be trusted. Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been a major promoter of salmon farming. The senators wrote:
"We urge the U.S. government to obtain samples from the two infected sockeye and run independent diagnostic tess to confirm the presence of the ISA virus in British Columbia. 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."
Dr. Winton was being diplomatic on Sunday, saying: "We will work with our Canadian partners but also have to have our own information."
The feds are responding. Agencies will have drawn up a preliminary analysis plan by next week, said Mark Strom, a microbiology expert with the fisheries lab of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
NOAA plans to screen salmon in American waters for ISA, he added. "We can respond immediately if a virulent strain of ISA is found," Strom said.
Fearing the finger of blame, salmon farming spokesmen in British Columbia are discounting the chances of an ISA outbreak, pointing to Dr. Nylund's finding.
Odd Grydeland, former president of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said "extreme environmentalists" are promoting the virus story. He noted in an essay that the sockeye smolt samples came from a university "which has given an honorary doctorate to the most rabid anti-salmon farming critic in British Columbia, 'Dr.' Alexandra Morton."
Morton was one of the salmon activists who gathered the Harrison River samples. She is a marine biologist who lives near the Broughton Archipelago, and has linked release of sea lice from salmon pens to the decimation of wild pink salmon populations in the area.
"Nobody in B.C. are saying with certainty that the ISA virus is not here, but there is a growing level of suspicion that positive that positive sampling results announced by environmentalist are suspect at best," Grydeland argued.
Salmon advocates, south of the border, have complained of a similar pooh-poohing in the upper reaches of NOAA.
A Senate-passed amendment says ISA must be taken seriously. It was sponsored by Cantwell and other West Coast senators.
The amendment requires a report be delivered to Congress within six months which outlines surveillance, susceptibility of species and populations, gaps in knowledge, and recommendations for action.
Virus Found in Salmon in Canada Worries U.S. by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 11/7/11
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