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DFO handling of 10-year-old fish virus study disappoints North Island First Nations

DFO says report unreleased due to inconclusive science, Nations say valuable information suppressed
An Atlantic salmon is seen during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS /Jonathan Hayward

A trio of North Island First Nations are disturbed that a 10-year-old fish virus study was “suppressed” by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for a decade.

But federal officials are saying the study was never released because its authors did not agree on its findings.

Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders is the key author behind the 2012 fish virus study that suggested farmed salmon suffered from anemia and jaundice because of Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV). It was not made public until this March, when the federal Information Commissioner decided, in response to an Access to Information and Privacy request (ATIP), that suppressing publication was not justified.

Citing April 14 reports by Ian Bailey in the Globe and Mail and Leyland Cecco in The Guardian, three Broughton Archipelago First Nations (Mamalilikulla, ‘Namgis, and the Kwikwasutinuxw Haxwa’mis) combined to issue a statement sharing their disappointment that it took so long for the findings to come out.

“(We) have worked very hard to understand the ways that the fish farms in our territories can affect the wild Pacific salmon populations and the health of the ecosystem, including big investments in science and monitoring programs,” ‘Namgis Chief Don Svanvik said in the statement.

“For 10 years, DFO has had reliable information about the harm that these viruses may cause wild salmon, which we could have used to protect these dwindling stocks. The government of Canada says it wants to act like our partner but holding back this important information is not something a partner would do.”

“The newly released information about the adverse effects of the highly contagious PRV to fish health corroborates observations and other information gathered… This information would have been extremely helpful in 2012, and potentially helped prevent the losses of wild salmon that we are dealing with today.”

Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray issued a response through press secretary Claire Teichman.

“As has been previously reported, according to widely accepted standards for publishing scientific research papers, authors must agree to the contents of the paper. This is also reflected in DFO’s policy on science integrity.”

She added Murray is still committed to transitioning away from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters and work to do so is underway.

Meanwhile, the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) released a statement saying the 2012 fish virus study was not conducted by the BCSFA and “we had no control over whether or when the manuscript was published.”

“The main co-authors did not agree on a conclusion based on the data. The manuscript has not yet gone through the peer review process because of this disagreement. Our sector supports the dissemination of sound science and information being released in the context of a peer reviewed published paper, rather than an ad hoc release of information through ATIP.”

As for the dangers of PRV, the BCSFA says that recent peer-reviewed research supports that “farmed PRV is not considered to have any clinical significance by fish health scientists, and therefore is not a risk to wild Pacific salmon.”

“From Alaska to California, despite the myriad of viruses, bacteria and parasites that wild hatchery biologists and veterinarians have to deal with, no one is concerned or really looks for PRV. PRV is not an issue among fish health professionals and never has been.”

RELATED: After the election: The future of fish farms in the North Island

RELATED: Farmed salmon virus source, amplifies disease transmission in wild salmon: B.C. study


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Tyson Whitney

About the Author: Tyson Whitney

I have been working in the community newspaper business for nearly a decade, all of those years with Black Press Media.
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