Consumers of farmed salmon can dine with “confidence” despite headline-grabbing deadly ocean virus testimony given at the Cohen Commission examining the decline of Fraser River sockeye.
Testimony, which wrapped up last week, has raised fresh questions about the potential threat of the Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA) virus that has ravaged farmed salmon elsewhere in the world.
In the wake of this testimony Campbell River-based BC Salmon Farmers Association Executive Director Mary Ellen Walling said simply: “We have a record of confidence.”
Walling, who attended the commission hearings, said: “The gap in the testimony we have heard is around the lack of knowledge we have on viruses in the Pacific Ocean that may affect wild salmon.
“There are millions and millions of viruses in the sea. They are the most prevalent life forms in the ocean. But, virus does not always equal disease.
“Because we’ve done so much work on farmed fish monitoring we have a record of confidence in the results that we have had over the past decade and we don’t see large numbers of an explained mortalities in our fish.
“If our fish were carrying this ISA virus they would die because this is a virus that has been proven to have a terrible affect on farmed Atlantic salmon … we’ve seen that in other jurisdictions,” Walling added.
The commission heard new evidence that critics say suggests federal agencies were willing to suppress the truth about risks to salmon to protect industry and trade. One email entered in evidence came from a BC manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) which investigated alleged findings of ISA and then refuted those reports. The CFIA manager emailed colleagues in November to praise their “very successful performance” briefing the media. “It is clear that we are turning the PR tide to our favour,” he bragged.
Stephen Stephen, the director of DFO’s Biotechnology and Aquatic Animal Health Sciences Branch, rejected suggestions federal employees pre-judged the ISA investigation.
He defended CFIA’s recent determination that re-testing failed to confirm any presence of ISA in several wild salmon collected separately by a SFU professor and independent biologist Alexandra Morton. However, DFO researcher Kristi Miller told the inquiry that the ISA virus, or something very similar, may have been present in wild BC salmon for 25 years. The CFIA has promised systematic salmon sampling to test for ISA in BC waters starting next year. Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said he believes ISA is present in BC on the basis of the initial tests, although he said it’s unclear what threat, if any, this poses to wild salmon.
“The bigger question is what government is doing to protect our interests as opposed to protecting very narrow interests like salmon farming,” Orr said.
Asked if the hearing testimony represents a public relations setback for salmon farmers Walling said: “It’s always challenging communicating complex scientific questions.
“People want to have confidence in the food that they are eating. They want to have delicious meal. They want to eat something that is healthy. They want to know we are protecting wild salmon in the environment where we are farming.
“We try to be open and accessible in terms of the information we are providing the public,” the association executive director said.