Cohen Commission: ISAv Evidentiary Hearing, December 16, 2011

Theme: Infectious Salmon Anemia virus (ISAv)


Morning Session:
Nellie Gagné (Molecular Biology Scientist and Laboratory Supervisor, DFO, Moncton)

Dr. Fred Kibenge (Chairman, Department of Pathology and Microbiology, Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island)

Afternoon Session:
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

Pacific salmon virus fears may be overblown, Canadian scientists say
Alaska Dispatch, Craig Medred | Dec 16, 2011

Fears a salmon virus outbreak might decimate wild Pacific salmon the way it did Atlantic salmon pen-raised in Chile and Norway appears to have been premature or overblown, according to Canadian scientists. One of that country's top fish scientists this week told the Cohen Commission, which is charged with investigating the decline of red salmon in the Fraser River, that she now believes infectious salmon anemia (commonly called ISA) or a variant has been carried by wild Pacific salmon for at least 25 years.

In October, researchers from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia caused a stir when they revealed they had found ISA in Canadian red salmon. Their tests results, however, could not be confirmed. Still fears about ISA lingered, and then rose to new heights in November when the Seattle Times picked up an old and never published doctoral thesis noting the discovery of some variant of ISA in the Pacific. The Times ran with a story headlined, "Canada kept detection of salmon virus secret.''

The information in the study had been leaked to fisheries and environmental reporters. Fisheries pathologists for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who read it reached much the same conclusion as that delivered to the Cohen Commission this week -- that there was a strain of ISA long dormant in the Pacific.

The Times story noted this possibility, but played heavily to "wild-fish advocates (who) long have feared the arrival of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) virus, a pathogen linked to aquaculture that has killed millions of farmed salmon in Europe and Chile. They say it could mutate and devastate wild fish stocks.''

The Times story added that the Canadian "researcher's work surfaced only this week after she sought and was denied permission by a Canadian official to try to have her old data published in a scientific journal....Word of the earlier research raises new questions about the Canadian agency charged with assessing the risk. Environmentalists in Canada and some U.S. politicians worry that Fisheries and Oceans Canada may be ill-equipped to aggressively deal with the risk because it's responsible both for protecting the country's wild fish and for promoting British Columbia's salmon farms." Canadian officials promptly took a beating from Pacific wild salmon advocates and some U.S. lawmakers.

At the time, they said they just wanted a chance to examine the old data before reaching any conclusions. Scientist Kristi Miller from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans reported to the Cohen Commission this week that she studied samples of Pacific salmon tissue dating back to 1986 and found evidence of genetic material for the ISA virus in many of those samples. "I clearly believe there is a virus here that is very similar to ISA in Europe," the Vancouver Sun quoted her telling the Cohen inquiry. The Cohen Commission is trying to determine what caused the collapse of Fraser River red salmon stocks in 2009.

On the subject of ISA, the commission heard not only from Miller but from three other leading authorities on fish viruses. Professor Fred Kibenge from the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island said more study is needed to determine whether what Miller has found is really ISA or simply an "ISA-like virus.'' Alaska's chief of fish pathology, Ted Meyers, has suggested it could be a long established ISA-like virus that mutates into ISA in Atlantic salmon. The scientists do not seem particularly worried, but there has been considerable public fear. The Los Angeles Times suggested earlier this month the Canadians might have engaged in a "Salmongate" to cover up ISA.

And Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., as reported by Fishermen's News Online, called for "a coordinated, multi-national strategy to control the spread of this virus threat,” ( although it is unclear how anyone would stop the spread of a virus endemic to the entire Pacific Ocean.

Scientists fear reprisals after their research on a possibly deadly fish virus
By: Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press, 12/16/2011

VANCOUVER - Two Canadian scientists working on opposite coasts say they fear their reputations are being threatened after discovering signs of a potentially lethal fish virus in British Columbia salmon, a federal inquiry has heard.

Fred Kibenge, who runs a prestigious lab on the East Coast, detected infectious salmon anaemia in two of 48 sockeye smolts, and the results of his work were widely publicized in October.

The revelation set off a chain of alarm bells throughout the government and the West Coast salmon industry.

The ISA virus has infected and killed millions of fish in Chile, and is believed to have originated in Norway where its own stocks were devastated.

It also triggered an assessment of Kibenge's independent lab at the University of Prince Edward Island by inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It's one of only two such labs for the virus in the world.

Kibenge told the federal commission in Vancouver on Friday that the way officials behaved led him to believe they were aiming to discredit his work.

"Based on the questioning I got, I sensed that the interest here was to confirm my result was the result of contamination," he said while under cross-examination.

"The second point was that probably I was doing shoddy science."

The federally-appointed Cohen Commission was called two years ago to examine what caused the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River sockeye.

The suggestion that an influenza-like virus had penetrated B.C. waters came just as the 21-month inquiry was wrapping up, prompting the commissioner to hold three more days of hearings.

In the past several weeks, additional research has surfaced that potentially identifies the virus' presence as far back as 2002.

Earlier this month, officials with the federal Fisheries Department and the CFIA also released findings from their own tests on the suspicious fish. The Fisheries minister released a statement saying that the in-depth test results showed no signs of infectious salmon anaemia and said there has never been a confirmed case.

At the inquiry, Kibenge said he felt he was being pressured, even though he considered his science to be "above question."

"Because aquaculture is a business, of course, the virus or the pathogen ... is a problem," he said. "As far as I know, the spread of diseases is the most feared threat to aquaculture."

But in later testimony, Fisheries official Peter Wright, who manages the national aquatic animal health laboratory system, said the assessment wasn't seeking to discredit Kibenge.

He said its goal was to figure out why Kibenge's test results came up positive when examination of the same fish in the government's own lab did not.

During an earlier hearing, a second scientist who works in a lab based in Nanaimo, B.C., was questioned about her own experiences with federal officials.

Molecular geneticist Kristi Miller, who runs a research lab for the Fisheries Department in Nanaimo, B.C., told the commission on Thursday she has been "alienated" within the department.

She said that began in late November when she revealed to superiors she, too, had detected the virus in B.C. salmon.

On Thursday, a lawyer for the commission asked a panel of three government officials whether Miller's findings are a "game-changer."

No, it just requires further investigation, was the answer from Stephen Stephen, the director to whom Miller reported her findings.

"Although it may have merit," added his colleague Wright, as he pointed out Miller is using a different testing technique.

"It needs to be proven."

Kim Klotins, who was appearing on behalf of the food inspection agency, added the agency has already begun a process of investigating Miller's findings. She said staff have run initial tests, which did not corroborate the results.

The virus found was 95 per cent similar to its European strain, Miller said. A North American strain has previously been detected in Atlantic Canada.

Miller also noted yet another researcher, Prof. Rick Routledge of Simon Fraser University, came under scrutiny after he made Kibenge's initial results public. Routledge had collected the fish and sent them to the P.E.I. lab for testing.

She said the CFIA removed all samples from Routledge's freezer, meaning his work could not continue.

She said Stephen told her she shouldn't conduct research if she didn't understand its potential "ramifications."

That, along with what happened to Routledge's samples, caused her to feel "some level of intimidation," she told the commission.

Miller's lab is funded by the government to conduct research on fish pathogens. She found the evidence of infectious salmon anaemia in the course of that work.

Miller has told the inquiry she's not clear whether the virus she discovered causes disease, but she noted there appeared to be some signs of damage in the fish.

But that virus isn't her greatest concern, she said.

She testified she has also found signs of another virus unknown in Canadian fish that causes a condition called heart and skeletal muscle inflammation. She said those results from migrating wild sockeye salmon came back in early testing, and have not yet been shared with officials or been made public.

Kibenge and Miller are among four expert fish scientists who have told the inquiry there is varying evidence the ISA virus may be carried in B.C. salmon, with some findings dating back 25 years.

The scientists say more research is required to know whether it could be a health risk for wild Pacific salmon.

The inquiry's final report is due by the end of June.