Conservation Groups Applaud Investigation of Provincial Fish Health Lab

Posted by Anna Kemp on

Lab’s diagnostic methods and public communications merit scrutiny

VANCOUVER – A review of the provincial Animal Health Laboratory and its fish health program is long overdue, according to two B.C. conservation organizations.  While critics claim the investigation is unwarranted, Watershed Watch Salmon Society and Living Oceans Society point to a well-documented history of concerns with the lab’s fish health work.

“What’s at stake is the ability of regulators to protect the health of B.C.’s wild salmon based on what diseases and viruses are really on the farms,” says Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans Society. “If disease outbreaks are not tested and reported properly, they can’t be managed and wild salmon populations may suffer.”

Concerns have been raised previously about the quality of the lab’s work:

  • In 2011 during the Cohen Inquiry, several Canadian and international scientists raised questions about the lab’s testing protocols for Infectious Salmon Anemia virus (ISAV) and the staff that developed the tests (see backgrounder).
  • In 2015, a group of B.C. scientists produced a scathing critique of a fish health report from the lab in question (see backgrounder).
  • In 2017, DFO and Norwegian scientists published science papers reporting the presence of a fish heart disease (HSMI) in B.C. farmed salmon and the causative virus. Previous to these reports, provincial lab staff maintained HSMI does not occur in B.C.

“Detection and disclosure of disease on salmon farms is a matter of considerable importance to both industry and the public,“ said Stan Proboszcz, science advisor for Watershed Watch Salmon Society. “British Columbians deserve to know that regulators are receiving trustworthy scientific information, in order to assess the risks to wild fish.”

The conservation groups call on the Province to ensure the reviewer, Deputy Minister Don Wright, has all the resources necessary for a robust and critical investigation.

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Contact:

Karen Wristen, Executive Director, Living Oceans Society, 604-788-5634, kwristen@livingoceans.org

Stan Proboszcz, Science Advisor, Watershed Watch Salmon Society, 604-314-2713, proboszcz@watershedwatch.ca

Backgrounder

Salmon farms can introduce, spread and amplify viruses, bacteria, parasites and diseases to wild fish and negatively impact B.C. wild salmon. Objective public reporting of diseases in the salmon farming industry has the potential to impact industry profits and reputations and it is possible there may be reluctance to test and report in the best manner. Therefore, it is critical to have a transparent and objective monitoring facility conducting the work at arm’s length from industry, to ensure management measures can be taken to protect wild salmon and the First Nations and coastal communities that depend on them.

There have been a number of incidents in the past that raise serious questions about the motivation, competence and transparency of fish health monitoring at the Provincial Animal Health lab.

In 2015, a group of B.C. scientists produced a scathing critique (https://www.watershed-watch.org/CritiqueGaryMartyDocument.pdf) of a fish health report from the provincial lab. It included criticisms of a provincial lab scientist, and the comments included that he:

  • misrepresented or misinterpreted published work
  • “omitted evidence” that contradicts a number of his claims.
  • “failed to mention genetic tests that suggest infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAv) is present in BC.”
  • “failed to consider emerging and evolving diseases that have the potential to impact wild salmon populations.”

During the Cohen Inquiry, questions were raised about the provincial lab and its ability to appropriately test for Infectious Salmon Anemia virus. In August 2011, a provincial lab representative testified in the Cohen Inquiry and said  the B.C. lab had over 5,000 negative tests for ISAV (Infectious Salmon Anemia Virus) and they had “an extremely high level of confidence” that B.C.’s salmon farming industry is free from ISAV (page 56, line 1, August 31, 2011, Cohen Inquiry transcripts: https://www.watershed-watch.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/CohenCommission-HearingTranscript-2011-08-31.pdf).

Later in December 2011, positive tests for ISAv from another lab were uncovered during the Inquiry and several Canadian and international scientists raised questions about the testing protocols used by the B.C. lab and the employee that developed them: (page 39, line 34, and page 111, line 6 to page 112, line 12, December 15, 2011: https://www.watershed-watch.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/CohenCommission-HearingTranscript-2011-12-15.pdf).

In December 2011, the presence of Piscene Reovirus (PRV) in B.C. farmed salmon was reported by a DFO scientist in the Cohen Inquiry (page 113, line 7, December 15, 2011:  (https://www.watershed-watch.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/CohenCommission-HearingTranscript-2011-12-15.pdf). To our knowledge, the provincial lab did not publicly report the presence of PRV in B.C. before this, despite having developed a test for PRV in 2010, as detailed in a provincial lab report: (http://marineharvest.ca/globalassets/canada/pdf/other-pdfs/piscine-reovirus-prv-information-sheet_gary-marty_2013.pdf).

A summary report from the provincial lab in 2013 states: “In B.C., PRV is common in farmed Atlantic salmon and farmed Pacific salmon, but HSMI does not occur in B.C.” However, DFO scientists were able to make a diagnosis of HSMI based on samples taken from salmon farms during 2013 and 2014 (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0171471).

All this raises questions about the testing protocols of the provincial lab and its openness to public reporting of salmon farming disease and virus information.