Virus may be ‘smoking gun’ in sockeye collapse

Cohen inquiry hears conflicting evidence on potential role of salmon farms

The decline of sockeye salmon to dangerously low levels in 2009 led to the launch of the Cohen commission.

The decline of sockeye salmon to dangerously low levels in 2009 led to the launch of the Cohen commission.

Salmon farmers have agreed to provide fish samples to federal biologists who are investigating a newly detected virus they suspect is linked to the steep decline of wild sockeye.

The industry had previously refused to cooperate but four major aquaculture companies have now relented, the Cohen Inquiry heard Wednesday.

Dr. Kristi Miller, a genetics researcher with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in Nanaimo, said she wants to compare virus levels in wild sockeye with samples of farmed Atlantic salmon at various life stages – including juveniles before being placed in ocean net pens as well as later, when wild sockeye are passing the farms off northern Vancouver Island.

Miller testified she found wild sockeye salmon with a particular genetic signature are 13.5 times less likely to return to reach their spawning grounds than ones without the signature.

She said a parvovirus recently identified appears to be the likely culprit, but agreed with another DFO biologist that more research is needed to prove if it is actually infectious and causing lethal disease.

Miller said the virus “could be the smoking gun” that explains the premature deaths of millions of sockeye in recent years although another DFO researcher, Dr. Kyle Garver, said it is “pure speculation” to read too much into the findings yet.

Miller maintained she believes some pathogen, likely a virus, is harming salmon before they enter the Fraser River and contributing to an extremely high pre-spawn death rate.

“Fish were already compromised before they entered the river,” she said, adding that proves river conditions alone cannot explain the sockeye decline.

Tests of farmed salmon may not bring back conclusive results on their potential role in time for the inquiry to factor them into its findings.

But under cross-examination by a lawyer for the salmon farming industry, Miller confirmed her data showed the highest level of the mortality marker was in young smolts that had not left the river and had not yet gone anywhere near fish farms, casting doubt on how they could play a major role.

“The main time period of transmission appears to be in fresh water,” she said, adding it’

s been detected in young fry in their birth lakes.

Miller said that doesn’t mean the virus didn’t first originate with the fish farms nor does it exclude the potential for farmed fish – or perhaps other species in fresh water – to pass the virus back and forth with wild salmon.

She also confirmed the lethal signature has also been found in sockeye from Haida Gwaii, far from the fish farms, as well as sockeye from rivers on the west side of Vancouver Island, which don’t migrate through Johnstone Strait.

Her group has done little research so far on northern stocks that return to the Skeena or Nass rivers.

Miller did stress the lethal markers were not found in the thriving Harrison Lake sockeye – which spend less time in fresh water and migrate around the west coast of Vancouver Island, not past the Johnstone Strait fish farms.

“Harrison is the one stock on the Fraser River that is increasing in productivity,” she said.

“The fish that spend less time in fresh water tend to  be doing better than the fish that spend more.”

The possible spread of disease and the potential role of the aquaculture industry has been the focus of the commission this week.

Miller’s appearance was widely anticipated due to reports she’d been muzzled by federal officials after the publication of her latest paper in the journal Science.

She told the commission she had been told not to publicly discuss her findings ahead of her testimony – out of respect for the inquiry – but said the same instructions applied to other DFO staff.

Miller said she has always had complete freedom to publish her findings.

“I’ve never been told not to share research.”

Earlier in the week, the inquiry released emails from Miller in late July questioning why DFO wouldn’t test farmed salmon for the parvovirus strain showing up in sockeye and warning colleagues the department better have an answer when the topic came up before the inquiry.

Miller’s email indicated her colleagues felt there was no benefit to testing, and if the industry likely wouldn’t comply if asked to voluntarily submit fish for testing.

The judicial inquiry led by retired Judge Bruce Cohen was called by the federal government after less than 1.5 million sockeye returned in 2009, far fewer than the more than 10 million expected.

The inquiry has explored myriad potential causes for the decline – from pollution and habitat destruction to overfishing and marine predators – but none has yet emerged as the probable sole cause of the drop in stocks.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ron Sivorot, business director at Kennametal’s Langford site, the Greater Victoria facility that made a component being used on NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars. (Jake Romphf, Black Press Media)
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover using piece made at Kennametal’s Langford site

The Greater Victoria plant’s tooth blank is helping the rover’s drill collect rock cores

A provincially appointed consultant has recommended a change to the funding formula for the VicPD that will save Esquimalt a significant amount of money. (Black Press Media file photo)
Esquimalt to save a bundle on policing costs under new formula

Provincial consultant studied funding model, resource deployment for VicPD

A rockfall closed Finlayson Arm Road and West Shore Parkway on Friday (March 5) afternoon. (Twitter/BC Transportation)
UPDATED: Malahat reopens following rockfall

Section of Trans-Canada Highway was scheduled for intermittent closures today for rock scaling work

A Victoria resident was scammed out of $1,700 after a fraudster impersonated a police officer and convinced the victim to pay a non-existent fine in Bitcoin. (Unsplash)
Fraudster impersonates Victoria police officer, steals $1,700 in Bitcoin

Phone call showed up as VicPD’s non-emergency line

The Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
Tsartlip First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA revealed COVID-19 outbreak

Chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA Adam Olsen apologizes

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to pair of lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Friday, March 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau holds firm on premiers’ health-care funding demands, COVID-19 aid comes first

Premiers argue that the current amount doesn’t keep pace with yearly cost increases of about five per cent

Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend service, in Chilliwack, B.C., on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Lawyers for the British Columbia government and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms are back in B.C. Supreme Court today, squaring off over the legality of COVID-19 rules that prohibit in-person religious services. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. top doctor has power to restrict access to a place during health hazard: lawyer

Under B.C.’s Public Health Act, Jacqueline Hughes says, Henry can restrict or prevent entry to a place

Most Read