Salmon Leaks Part 6: A Thorough Cross-examination of DFO’s Regional Director of Science—Dr. Laura Richards

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The inquiry examining the decline of Fraser River sockeye continued and heard testimony from the head of science in the Pacific Region—Dr. Laura Richards. Richards was brought back to the stand on Mar 17 to answer questions related to an internal DFO workshop held in September of 2009 on the subject of the low sockeye return that year, among other issues. Some of the day’s highlights were reported in the Globe and Mail on March 27. It was an extremely revealing session and Dr. Richards was the focus of probing questions throughout the day. A review of the entire day’s transcript is recommended because a remarkable amount of evidence became public.

See transcripts for Laura Richards, Regional Director of Science DFO:

 

On Mar 17 an email was submitted that described an internal DFO workshop (to be held in Sept 2009) organized to discuss and synthesize the various theories for the 2009 low sockeye return. An agenda for that meeting was also attached. Another interesting document was comprised of three briefing notes to the Minister on various theories regarding the sockeye decline: one with focus on sea lice, dated Mar 2, 2010; a second on a wide variety of potential factors, dated  Dec 3, 2009; and a third on disease related factors, dated Dec 11 2009. With respect to these documents, counsel suggested to Dr. Richards (starts on page 14, line 1) that DFO scientists concluded that the three most important factors that might have led to the poor Fraser sockeye return were “toxic algal blooms in Georgia Strait, low food abundance in Queen Charlotte Sound, and viral disease.” In addition, according to Richards in cross-examination, the three memos (one general, one on sea lice and one on disease) “were the only briefing memoranda that went to the minister’s office relating to the poor returns of the sockeye in 2009” at that time. This raises the question: if DFO concluded the three primary factors related to the poor sockeye return in 2009 were algal blooms, low food abundance and disease, then why weren’t specific memos on algae and food availability developed and sent to the Minister to inform her of the situation? And why was a memo on sea lice sent to the Minister, when this factor was not considered to be one of the primary causes of the sockeye loss? Richards does provide an intricate rationale for DFO’s actions (page 21, line 8).

The discussion on Mar 17 with Dr. Richards took an interesting turn with the introduction of several internal email threads and draft speaking notes for a Member of Parliament that where developed by DFO staff from the Pacific Region (page 24, line 5). The speaking notes were to be used in case a parliamentary debate on Fraser sockeye was initiated.

 

Paul Ryall from DFO stated in an email,

“We are been requested to draft speeches for the Minister. I don’t think this is our role. I can see that we can supply information and also address questions to a speech writer, but not be the lead on drafting a Minister’s speech.”

The release of these documents raise many questions. Given the draft speech notes regarding sea lice, why is so much effort put into debunking the aquaculture and sea lice theory to the decline in sockeye? Why is the threat of disease (which is discussed in the internal DFO workshop held in Sept 2009) glaringly absent in the draft speech? Shouldn’t parliament be alerted to a potentially new threat? Apparently this speech was never used, and the associated parliamentary debate on sockeye didn’t happen. Counsel for Watershed Watch posed some of these pressing questions and others to Dr. Richards during an interesting exchange later in the day (starts on page 78, line 29).

More information was entered into evidence that suggested DFO took other measures to control information. An email from Dr. Kristi Miller (see page 29, line 11) explicitly refered to Laura Richards and her suppression of information regarding the purported virus theory,

“Laura does not want me to attend any of the sockeye salmon workshops that are not run by DFO for fear that we will not be able to control the way the disease issue could be construed in the press. I worry this approach of saying nothing will backfire.”

And it apparently did, as on Mar 17 this “approach” was recounted publicly in a federal judicial inquiry. It is widely known DFO scientists did not attend Simon Fraser University think tanks on the subject of Fraser sockeye in December 2009 and more recently in December 2010.

Counsel for the Aquaculture Coalition continued to press Dr. Richards for over an hour (starts on page 48, line 9) on the suppression of information by DFO and various other subjects. A presentation by Kristi Miller on the purported virus was entered into evidence and contained a substantial amount of information. In it Miller refers to “unhealthy” fish as those with the purported viral signature and she stated:

“Unhealthy sockeye entered the Fraser River faster and suffered 9-16x higher mortality en route to spawning grounds than healthy fish. At spawning grounds, only 18% of unhealthy fish spawned.”

Other pertinent disease references from Miller’s presentation included:

  • there is a “strong linkage” between her genomic and brain tumour data and Plasmacytoid Leukemia which is caused by the Salmon Leukemia Virus (SLV);
  • SLV is a “relatively unknown retrovirus associated with mortalities of culture Chinook salmon in fresh and saltwater”;
  • SLV “causes severe anaemia (also called Marine anaemia)”;
  • “SLV-infected fish are slower growing, poorer feeders, generally less active-but with burst activity, often move lower or higher in the water column, adjust poorly to salinity transfer, may be more temperature sensitive”;
  • In 1974 Plasmacytoid Leukemia is discovered in Chinook through histology at Washington State Hatchery;
  • in 1988 Plasmacytoid Leukemiais found in “Net Pens in S. BC” and “SLV involvement” is proposed;
  • between 1989 to 1992 “SLV spreads to [Chinook] Net Pens in central BC”; and
  • there is a large SLV outbreak in 1991 from hatchery stock throughout Vancouver Island, Southern and Northern BC and Yukon.

 

With the introduction of two more documents, counsel highlighted another example of DFO’s lack of transparency regarding the purported virus:

  • a report from a conference held in June of 2008 that includes viral research by Dr. Miller; and
  • A March 2011 letter from the Minister of Fisheries and approved by Dr. Richards to Alexandra Morton regarding the purported virus.

 

Counsel pointed out that Dr. Richards was in attendance of the June 2008 conference (page 53, line 17) where Dr. Miller presented “her hypothesis that the disease agent is intercellular, possibly a virus” and that Dr. Richards was the co-chair of the Committee on Scientific Cooperation on that conference and that she also prepared a summary of the conference. Given that Richards knew about the viral theory by at least June 2008, counsel highlighted the inconsistency in DFO’s communications about Miller’s research by drawing attention to a statement in the letter from the Minister to a concerned member of the public (page 58, line 5) in March 2011:

“The sockeye salmon that were studied were sampled in 2006, but the tissue was not analyzed until 2008 and 2009, and the hypothesis that the results indicated possible exposure to a virus was not made until mid-2009.”

Counsel asked, “Do you see that statement?”

Richards replied, “yes, I do.”

Counsel continued, “now, that’s incorrect, isn’t it? It was actually mid-2008?”

Richards replied with an apparently confusing answer (see page 58, line 29).

Counsel continued to question Richards about the Salmon Leukemia work and whether Kristi Miller was being silenced by DFO in regards to this research (page 70, line 13).

Counsel asked, “Dr. Richards, when Dr. Miller released her science paper in January of this year–”

Richards replied,“ Yes.”

Counsel continued, “–she was told she should not speak to the media. Are you aware of that?”

Richards replied, “Yes. And again, I think — but yeah.”

Other documents of interest:

  • memo to the Deputy Minister regarding potential factors contributing to the decline of sockeye discussed at a Pacific Salmon Commission meeting in June 2010;
  • proposal on genomics research relating to sockeye declines (includes proposed research into examining if farm Atlantic salmon could act as carriers of the disease); and
  • memo to the Minister in regards to strategy to address the issue of sea lice and includes: “The controversy is impeding the growth of the industry in BC and is negatively affecting public and policymaker impressions of the aquaculture sector overall regionally and nationally. “

 

Finally, counsel representing several Fraser River First Nations pressed Dr. Richards on DFO’s negligence in providing timely information regarding the purported virus which may threaten sockeye (starts on page 89, line 21).

For more information see:

 

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