A Fraser River coho salmon collected in October by biologist Alexandra Morton

Salmon inquiry to reopen hearings into virus reports

Fish farms, critics trade shots over initial ISA test results

The Cohen inquiry will hear more evidence in December to weigh reports that a deadly salmon virus has infected multiple species of wild salmon on the B.C. coast.

The commission into the decline of Fraser River sockeye had ended hearings in September and began taking final submissions Friday.

But commission counsel Brian Wallace said the inquiry will reconvene for two more days of testimony in mid-December.

“Testing of samples of Pacific salmon from two areas of the province has indicated the possible presence of the Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) virus in several Pacific salmon,” Wallace said.

More results are expected within a month, he said, adding the inquiry has asked for the latest test results and information on the fish.

The first reported detection of ISA in two sockeye smolts sampled along the central coast was disclosed by SFU researcher Rick Routledge in early October, after the inquiry stopped hearing witnesses, including experts on salmon diseases.

Independent biologist and anti-fish farm activist Alexandra Morton said three more salmon taken from lower Fraser tributaries – a chinook, a coho and a chum – also tested positive for ISA virus.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is analyzing the samples and has not yet confirmed any of the positive tests.

News of the potential ISA infection has rocked the B.C. salmon industry, raising the spectre stocks here may be hit with an ISA outbreak of the type that have ravaged Chilean and European fish farms.

Fisheries critics fear the virus is loose in the wild and will be able to infect net pen Atlantic salmon farms – if they are not there already – and pose a continuing threat to wild salmon stocks.

“All these fish farms need to close down now,” Morton said, adding ISA becomes more virulent in captive environments like fish farms and hatcheries.

“The only hope is to turn off the source, stop crowding fish together and let this thing burn through the wild Pacific like a forest fire and extinguish itself. That’s it, there is no other option.”

Morton also wants a B.C. lab established to test for ISA and that it be overseen by an international board.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said it has sampled thousands of fish from its members’ farms without finding any ISA.

But critics like Morton don’t trust industry-controlled tests.

And U.S. senators from Washington and Alaska have also called for independent tests, suggesting Canadian officials may be too close to the $400-million aquaculture industry.

Mainstream Canada, an aquaculture firm, said in a statement independent re-testing of the first reported samples has come back inconclusive.

It cited a Norwegian researcher who was unable to replicate the earlier results and cautioned a weak positive result can reflect a different virus with a similar genetic profile.

Mainstream said it’s critical to wait for the CFIA tests to give the final word and accused Morton of “spreading fear and concern without any basis in fact.”

ISA has mainly been a disease of farmed Atlantic salmon and the European strain can kill up to 90 per cent of infected fish.

Some researchers and aquaculture organizations say it may pose less of a threat to wild sockeye.