the Pacific Northwest and arguments often end up in court in the United States, whether over threats to endangered fish by hydroelectric dams or sea lions swallowing them along their migration routes.
very different kind of judicial venue across the Canadian border: a provincial
Supreme Court justice held a hearing into questions of whether a potentially
lethal virus had been detected in wild Pacific salmon — and whether the Canadian
government was responding adequately.
The virus, infectious salmon anemia, has devastated farmed
Atlantic salmon stocks in Chile and elsewhere. Some conservationists and
scientists have long worried that the virus would spread from farmed fish to
wild ones. Those fears escalated in October, when opponents of British
Columbia’s ambitious farmed Atlantic salmon program, which is heavily promoted
by the government, presented lab results they said showed an
asymptomatic form of the virus in wild Pacific salmon.
Several more reports of the virus have emerged in the past two months,
including a draft paper suggesting that the virus was detected as early as 2002
but not revealed by the government, further angering farming opponents.
The developments have prompted passionate debate on both sides of the border,
with reaction veering from accusations that the Canadian government is covering
up evidence of the disease to claims by Canadian officials that the reports are
based on poor science.
Some scientists have suggested that a strain of the virus may have been
present in wild Pacific salmon for many years as a “host pathogen,” without
causing a disease outbreak, and that it may never pose a risk. It is also
unclear whether farmed Atlantic salmon in Canada, raised in net pens along the
coast, have contracted the virus or are spreading it. But scientists also note
that viruses can mutate, and many say it is imperative to learn more. Officials
in both Canada and the United States are planning extensive new testing efforts.
On Thursday, the first of three days of testimony, lawyers for the Canadian
government, the province, the aquaculture industry and those opposed to it, as
well as conservationists and others, questioned four scientists who have studied
infectious salmon anemia and many of the fish tested in British Columbia. The
scientists gave highly technical and sometimes contradictory testimony before a
full but largely quiet gallery. Some people wore T-shirts that read: “Standing
on guard for wild salmon.”
The most combative exchanges occurred during testimony by Kristina Miller,
the head of molecular genetics for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans
laboratory at Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. While previous reports of the virus
had surfaced from sources outside the Canadian government, only to have Canadian
officials question them, Dr. Miller testified that she also had received
positive results when she tested for the virus, known as I.S.A. She said that
when she reported her work to a superior last month, she was asked why she had
conducted it at all.
“Nobody in the department talked to me about disease or I.S.A. after that,”
Dr. Miller testified. At one point, she said she was frustrated at what she
called “flippant dismissal of pathogens” that could be harmful.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is charged with promoting aquaculture
but also with protecting wild fish, a dual mission that some critics say creates
conflicts. Agency officials are scheduled to testify in the next two days.
Some of Dr. Miller’s research methods were questioned by another virus
expert, who participated via teleconference. But that expert, Professor Are
Nylund of the University of Bergen in Norway, expressed support for positive
results that were found by Frederick S. B. Kibenge, a professor at the
University of Prince Edward Island.
Dr. Miller said that while her tests showed that the fish responded to the
presence of the virus, it was not clear that it causing harm. She testified that
she had recently tested salmon tissue samples from 1986 and that they, too,
showed the asymptomatic form of I.S.A.
“We have not established that it causes disease,” she said.