Cohen Commission: ISAv Evidentiary Hearing - December 19, 2011

Theme: Infectious Salmon Anemia virus (ISAv)


Dr. Simon Jones (Research Scientist, DFO)
Dr. Kim Klotins (Acting National Manager, Disease Control Contingency Planning, Aquatic Animal Health Division, CFIA, Ottawa)
Dr. Stephen Stephen (Director Biotechnology and Aquatic Animal Health Sciences Branch, DFO, Ottawa)
Dr. Peter Wright (National Manager, National Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory System, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Moncton)

Transcript Link: Evidentiary Hearing Transcript -  PDF Document

For your reference links to the following reports: 

  • Cohen Commission: BACKGROUNDER August 25, 2011: Technical Report Project 5 – Impacts of salmon farms on Fraser River sockeye salmon
  • Project 5A – Summary of Information for Evaluating Impacts of Salmon Farms on Survival of Fraser River Sockeye Salmon
  • Project 5B – Examination of relationships between salmon aquaculture and sockeye salmon population dynamics
  • Project 5C – Impacts of salmon farms on Fraser River sockeye salmon: Results of the Noakes investigation
  • Project 5D – Impacts of salmon farms on Fraser River sockeye salmon: Results of the Dill investigation

can be accessed here.

News Coverage of Interest

Hardest work still to come as Cohen hearings conclude
mark hume, VANCOUVER— Globe and Mail, Dec. 19, 2011

After 18 months of hearings and the filing of 2,145 exhibits, a federal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon has ended – except for the writing of a report that could recast fisheries management on the West Coast.

The inquiry, under the direction of the B.C. Supreme Court’s Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen, was struck by Prime Minister Stephen Harper after only about one million of an anticipated 10 million sockeye returned to spawn in the Fraser River in 2009.

The collapse of the sockeye run led to the closing of the once-lucrative commercial fishery for the third season in a row, and was so extreme that even native bands along the river were curtailed from making catches for food and ceremonial purposes.

Judge Cohen’s task is to find out why the Fraser’s sockeye population has been declining and to offer solutions. But his findings are expected to have broader implications, because it is widely accepted that as go the sockeye – which is the most commercially valuable of the five species in B.C. – then so go the rest of the stocks.

In what is expected to be an exhaustive final report, due by June 30, 2012, Judge Cohen is supposed to make recommendations for improving the future sustainability of the sockeye fishery in the Fraser, including suggesting changes to the policies, practices and procedures of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Any hope that the Cohen Commission could find a smoking gun, and point to an easy solution, were quickly abandoned as the hearings got under way and an array of scientists began testifying about the complex and little-understood world of wild salmon.

Sockeye hatch in tributaries of the Fraser River throughout B.C. – some in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains – before rearing for a year in large lakes, then migrating up to 1,200 kilometres to the ocean.

But Judge Cohen heard that fisheries managers pretty much lose track of the young sockeye once they are in the Fraser. What happens to the fish on their journey out of the river, up the coast to the Gulf of Alaska, and on their return is pretty much a mystery.

Ocean changes that affect the amount of nutrients in the sea, climate changes that bring in warmer waters and new predators, and the possible exposure to fish of new diseases and lice, perhaps amplified by salmon in fish farms, were all raised as concerns. But there was no clear culprit, and more than once scientists referred to “death by a thousand cuts.”

Some of the more intriguing evidence Judge Cohen heard was about a phenomenon that has emerged in recent years in which adult salmon die as they migrate back up the Fraser, or on the spawning beds, just days before they should have reproduced. Nobody can explain why.

In the closing days of the hearings, Judge Cohen focused his attention on infectious salmon anemia, a virus that appears to have been detected in sockeye, although scientists are at odds as to whether the tests are reliable or not.

Lawyers representing three different participant groups grilled witnesses from DFO and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency over how the government reacted to scientific findings pointing to the possible discovery of the ISA virus on the West Coast.

Instead of launching tests to try to confirm the presence of the virus, Judge Cohen heard, government officials investigated the labs that had reported the findings.

He also heard it is unclear if the virus is in B.C., and if it is, no one knows what kind of a threat it might hold for salmon.

There was no sense of drama when the hearings ended Monday.

“The hearings are complete – I hope,” said Brock Martland, putting in the final word.

Judge Cohen left without comment, perhaps because he realizes the hardest work is yet to come.

Intensive probe to test nearly 8,000 B.C. salmon for disease
mark hume, VANCOUVER— Globe and Mail,Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency plans to test nearly 8,000 wild and farmed salmon over the next two years to find out if three potentially deadly fish diseases are present in British Columbia waters.

The project is an intensive investigation aimed at detecting any signs on the West Coast of infectious salmon anemia, infectious pancreatic necrosis or infectious hematopoietic necrosis.
“All three diseases are highly contagious, can cause mortality in wild and aquaculture salmon,” states a ministerial briefing note prepared by CFIA staff and updated Dec. 8. “Surveillance objectives are to determine the absence/presence of three diseases of trade significance … [and] to support international trade negotiations by making [a] disease-freedom declaration that will stand international scrutiny,” states the note, which was filed as evidence recently at the Cohen Commission of inquiry.

A draft copy of the CFIA surveillance plan was also entered at the hearings, which concluded on Monday.

During testimony, Kim Klotins, acting national manager of the CFIA’s aquatic animal health division, said the plan is still being worked on, but it should be in place by early next year.

The draft plan states that 7,700 salmon will be collected for sampling over two years, and that nearly 20,000 tests will be undertaken on the fish.

Salmon will be captured on spawning grounds, taken from federal fish hatcheries, caught at sea and collected at fish farms and from commercial fishing boats and processing plants.

The surveillance strategy, which also involves the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and provincial authorities, was developed this year following reports that three laboratories had obtained positive hits for the ISA virus in samples of B.C. salmon. However, none of those positive tests could be repeated in follow-up studies, leaving officials unsure if the virus had been discovered or not – and raising concerns internationally about the disease-free status enjoyed by B.C.-farmed and wild salmon.

Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the BC Salmon Farming Association, said her organization will fully co-operate with the CFIA study.

But she said fish farmers on the West Coast remain confident their stock will get a clean bill of health.

“If we were seeing the commonly known ISA virus in British Columbia, we would have significant mortalities on the farms. And we don’t have large, unexplained mortality, we have good survival,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

Ms. Walling said the industry, which mostly raises Atlantic salmon, has been testing fish for 10 years in B.C. without finding any of the suspect diseases except for an isolated outbreak of IHN several years ago.

She said the industry’s disease-free tests and the “low mortality on our farms” indicates none of the suspected diseases are present in aquaculture operations.

“When you pair those two pieces together, I think it does demonstrate that we have good control over the health of the fish,” she said.

Alexandra Morton, a researcher and fish farm critic, said it is clear more disease research is needed in B.C., but she questioned the credibility of the CFIA. She said the CFIA appears more interested in maintaining Canada’s trade status than in protecting the health of B.C. salmon.

“What’s gotten lost in all of this is the biological significance of pathogens,” Ms. Morton said. “The commercial significance is very well looked after … the CFIA is … making sure commerce continues. But I do not trust them [concerning] the health and welfare of fish.”