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Virus fears for B.C. salmon unfounded, officials say

Nov 09 2011

Fears that a deadly virus is infecting B.C. salmon appear to be unfounded, federal officials said Tuesday.

Tests at a specialized Moncton laboratory by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Fisheries and Oceans on 48 samples of sockeye smolts found no sign of infectious salmon anemia (ISA), said Con Kiley, CFIA national aquatic animal health program director.

"There are no confirmed cases of ISA in wild or farm salmon in B.C," he said.

"There's no evidence that it occurs in fish off the waters of B.C."

The results run contrary to tests on the same samples carried out at the World Animal Health ISA reference laboratory at the University of Prince Edward Island, which found two of 48 sockeye smolts tested positive for the deadly European strain of the virus. A coho, chum and chinook also tested positive.

Questions remain because of the poor quality of the samples and federal officials agreed that more testing is needed.

"The supplementary results must be considered inconclusive because of the poor quality of the samples," Kiley said.

"Additional testing will continue and the results will be provided when we are ready."

Peter Wright, national manager of DFO's research and diagnostic laboratory system, said the samples were received in such poor condition that no definite conclusions could be drawn.

"Most are halfway or totally degraded," he said.

The results are consistent with independent testing by a lab in Norway that found one positive reading, but reported that the sample was poor and the test could not be reproduced, Wright said.

The province has re-tested some fish samples from salmon farms, B.C.'s chief veterinary officer Paul Kitching said.

"We are still unable to find the virus — absolutely zero," he said.

The European strain of ISA has devastated salmon farms in Norway, Chile and eastern Canada, but is not believed to be fatal to Pacific salmon.

Simon Fraser University professor Rick Routledge, who collected the sockeye samples in Rivers Inlet, said he is not surprised by the CFIA/DFO results.

"These samples had been captured and stored for other purposes and everyone recognized there was a strong possibility that the virus would be degraded over time," he said.

The smolts weighed only a few grams and the PEI tests were carried out on the hearts, which are no longer available to researchers, Routledge said.

"Nothing is known about where the virus might concentrate in sockeye salmon," he said.

Routledge hopes the federal government will start widespread testing of fresh samples as soon as possible.

Samples from a tributary of the Fraser River were collected by biologist Alexandra Morton, a vocal opponent of fish farms, who fears the virus could have been introduced through imported salmon eggs.

Morton, who agrees some samples were degraded because of freezing, said she wonders why tests are not being carried out on fresh samples she has already submitted and why DFO is not immediately collecting more samples.

"If the samples are degraded, what confidence can we have in the tests?" Morton said.

"Given the very severe nature of this virus, wouldn't it be wise to be testing out here?"

Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said the results are welcome news.

"This is a significant result for everyone involved — researchers, regulators, wild salmon advocates, salmon farmers and our coastal communities," she said.

Initial allegations, made at a news conference at Simon Fraser University, that the virus had been found in wild salmon were inflammatory and potentially affected international markets, she said.

"We're pleased to see the thorough way CFIA is following up, but are dismayed at the way campaigners used this to create fear about our operations," she said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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