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Virus Found in Salmon in Canada Worries U.S.

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, November 7, 2011

Lawmakers and the salmon industry want action to ensure that the disease doesn't spread to Idaho and other N.W. fish.

The U.S. Senate and the Pacific Northwest's $2.2 billion salmon industry have called for independent testing for a virus detected in wild sockeye in British Columbia to keep it from threatening the salmon that spawn in Northwest rivers.

Infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, killed thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon in Chile in 1996 and devastated the farmed salmon industry in Norway. Authorities killed 9.6 million farm salmon in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1999 to keep the deadly virus out of its struggling wild populations.

Now, British Columbia -- with its huge, powerful salmon-farming industry -- has detected ISA in wild salmon both on the Pacific Coast and in the Fraser River, its most important salmon spawning waters.

B.C. is struggling with what it must do to head off a potential ecological disaster.

In Idaho, the Department of Fish and Game's fisheries chief says it too early to say whether Idaho's endangered salmon and steelhead are threatened. And a top federal fisheries scientist in Washington said it may be six months before the U.S. can determine the seriousness of the threat to wild salmon stocks.


Last week, the Senate passed an amendment to an appropriations bill that calls for an investigation and rapid response to prevent the spread of the virus. Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch voted for the amendment, co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators from the Pacific Coast.

The Senate amendment calls on the National Aquatic Animal Health Task Force to evaluate the risk the virus could have on wild salmon off West Coast and Alaskan waters, and to develop a plan to address the threat. The task force brings together federal, state, local and tribal governments.

"Pacific Northwest wild salmon support tens of thousands of local jobs," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. "We need to take immediate action to protect these jobs by quickly developing a salmon virus action plan."

A crusading British Columbia biologist, Alexandra Morton, thinks there may be a connection between the declines of Fraser River sockeye with virus outbreaks from salmon farms. But, so far, there have been no publicly reported outbreaks in the farms' Atlantic salmon net pens located up and down the B.C. coast.

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which like Idaho's Department of Agriculture both promotes the salmon farming industry and regulates it, has dismissed Morton's assertions.

"If you move diseases across the world and brew them among local pathogens, in an environment where predators are not allowed to remove the sick, you get pestilence," Morton wrote in a blog.


Cantwell, and Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat, called for independent sampling.

"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 wrote to the appropriation committee.

Jim Winton, a microbiologist who serves as section chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle, said officials are waiting for Canadian authorities to confirm the discovery of the virus in the two fish. So far, they haven't been able to do so, he said.

"I don't think we're in a position to predict anything at this point," he said.

Once the infection is confirmed, scientists would try to gather DNA from the virus, he said. "If we can look at some genetic sequence info, we can learn where it came from and how long it's been here," Winton said.


All the Pacific salmon stocks are routinely tested said John Stein, a research biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. But in light of the recent events, he said, "we will redouble our efforts."

In particular, the agency will be carefully watching Idaho's Snake River sockeye, which spawn in Redfish Lake, 900 miles from the Pacific, Stein said.

Just because biologists have detected the virus doesn't mean there is a disease, said Idaho Fish and Game Fisheries Chief Ed Schriever. The ISA has caused disease in Atlantic salmon, but there have been no cases of it making Pacific salmon sick, he said.

"We believe the risk is small unless the actual disease breaks out in the net pen salmon," he said.

Still, many of Idaho's endangered salmon that spawn in central Idaho and migrate out the Snake and Columbia rivers turn north when they reach the Pacific and swim along the Canadian coast up to Alaska, said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United.

"This is one more problem in the way of recovery," he said.

Related Pages:
Infectious Salmon Anemia: Getting the Jump on a Disease of 'Devastating Quickness' by Joel Connelly, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 11/6/11

Rocky Barker
Virus Found in Salmon in Canada Worries U.S.
Idaho Statesman, November 7, 2011

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