Swimming upstream in the battle to protect salmon

Research on salmon diseases is now considered high priority by Ottawa

QUATHIASKI COVE, B.C. / Troy Media/ – Scientists are back.

The dictatorial edict of censorship from the former Conservative federal government that prevented scientists from communicating freely with the public was lifted within hours of the new Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau taking office last fall.

No one was more relieved than Kristi Miller, the head of molecular genetics at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) Pacific Biological Station. Indeed, her research on salmon diseases is now considered high priority by Ottawa.

This is a dramatic change from 2011, when the Prime Minister’s Office prevented her from discussing both her research published in Science magazine and the evidence she was giving to the Cohen Commission on the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye run.

“I was told at the time that the problem with the study was that it was talking about dying salmon and that wasn’t a positive news story.” So, she explained, “When we were banned, it almost made government scientists second-class citizens in the scientific arena. It was quite embarrassing. I really felt like a second-class citizen.”

Miller and her science colleagues found themselves in the same second-class as wild salmon when the government of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and DFO gave priority to farmed Atlantic salmon. In Miller’s assessment, “There’s always been research … trying to understand disease processes in aquaculture fish, but never really taken to the level of impacts on wild fish.”

This lapse in concern must be regarded as bizarre, given DFO’s mandate to protect wild salmon and the overwhelming evidence of disease transfer from farmed to wild fish. “Maybe,” Miller speculated, “we needed the Cohen Commission to motivate both the department and other academic researchers to really look closely at this question.”

The commission tabled its final report, a comprehensive review of Pacific salmon management in Canada, in October 2012. It contained 75 recommendations to government on restoring salmon populations.

Fortunately, scientists are now looking closely at the problem.

Current Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc told a news conference last month that the four-year delay in responding to the commission’s report was “unacceptable,” that Ottawa is committed to fulfilling B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen’s recommendations, and that, “The beginning of a transparent and open accountability to Canadians is today.”

The minister’s “rigorous and robust” efforts to restore the Fraser River’s iconic sockeye salmon run are timely because 2016 is its worst year – ever. The estimated one million returning fish are 400,000 less than the crisis that initiated the Cohen Commission – so low that all fishing in the lower Fraser has been banned, including the test fishery. With such numbers, every fish is important.

So the discovery of piscine reovirus in wild Pacific salmon (sockeye, coho, chinook and chum) is noteworthy, particularly if its source – as Norwegian scientists have concluded – is confirmed as salmon farms, where the infection is now epidemic. Even if the virus doesn’t manifest in wild fish as the debilitating HSMI (heart and skeletal muscle inflammation), the effects could still be serious.

As Miller explained, “Understanding disease processes in wild migrating fish is a really hard question, because we don’t observe them die.” Whereas farmed fish might just seem lethargic, any impairment in the ability of wild fish to swim, feed or evade predators would cause them to “drop out of the water column.”

So when every wild salmon is important, each one that succumbs to disease is a crucial loss.

With scientists back, maybe we will finally understand what’s happening to our wild salmon.

Ray Grigg is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. Ray is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

© 2016 Distributed by Troy Media