Virus may be ‘smoking gun’ in sockeye collapse

Cohen inquiry hears conflicting evidence on potential role of salmon farms

The decline of sockeye salmon to dangerously low levels in 2009 led to the launch of the Cohen commission.

The decline of sockeye salmon to dangerously low levels in 2009 led to the launch of the Cohen commission.

Salmon farmers have agreed to provide fish samples to federal biologists who are investigating a newly detected virus they suspect is linked to the steep decline of wild sockeye.

The industry had previously refused to cooperate but four major aquaculture companies have now relented, the Cohen Inquiry heard Wednesday.

Dr. Kristi Miller, a genetics researcher with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in Nanaimo, said she wants to compare virus levels in wild sockeye with samples of farmed Atlantic salmon at various life stages – including juveniles before being placed in ocean net pens as well as later, when wild sockeye are passing the farms off northern Vancouver Island.

Miller testified she found wild sockeye salmon with a particular genetic signature are 13.5 times less likely to return to reach their spawning grounds than ones without the signature.

She said a parvovirus recently identified appears to be the likely culprit, but agreed with another DFO biologist that more research is needed to prove if it is actually infectious and causing lethal disease.

Miller said the virus “could be the smoking gun” that explains the premature deaths of millions of sockeye in recent years although another DFO researcher, Dr. Kyle Garver, said it is “pure speculation” to read too much into the findings yet.

Miller maintained she believes some pathogen, likely a virus, is harming salmon before they enter the Fraser River and contributing to an extremely high pre-spawn death rate.

“Fish were already compromised before they entered the river,” she said, adding that proves river conditions alone cannot explain the sockeye decline.

Tests of farmed salmon may not bring back conclusive results on their potential role in time for the inquiry to factor them into its findings.

But under cross-examination by a lawyer for the salmon farming industry, Miller confirmed her data showed the highest level of the mortality marker was in young smolts that had not left the river and had not yet gone anywhere near fish farms, casting doubt on how they could play a major role.

“The main time period of transmission appears to be in fresh water,” she said, adding it’

s been detected in young fry in their birth lakes.

Miller said that doesn’t mean the virus didn’t first originate with the fish farms nor does it exclude the potential for farmed fish – or perhaps other species in fresh water – to pass the virus back and forth with wild salmon.

She also confirmed the lethal signature has also been found in sockeye from Haida Gwaii, far from the fish farms, as well as sockeye from rivers on the west side of Vancouver Island, which don’t migrate through Johnstone Strait.

Her group has done little research so far on northern stocks that return to the Skeena or Nass rivers.

Miller did stress the lethal markers were not found in the thriving Harrison Lake sockeye – which spend less time in fresh water and migrate around the west coast of Vancouver Island, not past the Johnstone Strait fish farms.

“Harrison is the one stock on the Fraser River that is increasing in productivity,” she said.

“The fish that spend less time in fresh water tend to  be doing better than the fish that spend more.”

The possible spread of disease and the potential role of the aquaculture industry has been the focus of the commission this week.

Miller’s appearance was widely anticipated due to reports she’d been muzzled by federal officials after the publication of her latest paper in the journal Science.

She told the commission she had been told not to publicly discuss her findings ahead of her testimony – out of respect for the inquiry – but said the same instructions applied to other DFO staff.

Miller said she has always had complete freedom to publish her findings.

“I’ve never been told not to share research.”

Earlier in the week, the inquiry released emails from Miller in late July questioning why DFO wouldn’t test farmed salmon for the parvovirus strain showing up in sockeye and warning colleagues the department better have an answer when the topic came up before the inquiry.

Miller’s email indicated her colleagues felt there was no benefit to testing, and if the industry likely wouldn’t comply if asked to voluntarily submit fish for testing.

The judicial inquiry led by retired Judge Bruce Cohen was called by the federal government after less than 1.5 million sockeye returned in 2009, far fewer than the more than 10 million expected.

The inquiry has explored myriad potential causes for the decline – from pollution and habitat destruction to overfishing and marine predators – but none has yet emerged as the probable sole cause of the drop in stocks.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Vernon Search and Rescue/Facebook)
Vernon Search and Rescue responds after family gets UTV stuck on SilverStar trails

The family activated their SOS beacon around 3 p.m. once they realized they could be facing a night alone in the mountains

Maggie Rodwell and Peter Molnar begin their trek at 2020's Reino Keski-Salmi Loppet hosted by the Larch Hills Nordic Society. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, a more leisurely virtual event is planned for 2021. (File photo)
More leisurely event planned for 2021 iteration of popular Salmon Arm loppet

Virtual Reino Keski-Salmi Loppet allows skiers to enjoy loppet routes at own pace

Benjamin Cashion, left, the first baby born at Shuswap Lake General Hospital in 2021, is already taking to his older brother Liam. (Submitted)
Newcomers to Shuswap welcome Salmon Arm hospital’s first baby of 2021

The Cashion family’s newest son Benjamin was born on Jan. 8.

(Photo: Pixabay)
Enderby chamber proposes new rural e-business training program

The program would help rural-area businesses expand using online tools and insights

Signs in Homer, Alaska, offer inspiration during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Armstrong-Homer News)
COLUMN: COVID-19 pandemic hits home

In Plain View by Lachlan Labere

Keith the curious kitten is seen on Nov. 4, 2020 at the Chilliwack SPCA. Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 is Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 17 to 23

Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, Pie Day and International Sweatpants Day are all coming up this week

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage addresses the attendees while Tom Olsen, Managing Director of the Canadian Energy Centre, looks on at a press conference at SAIT in Calgary on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Fulmes
‘Morally and ethically wrong:’ Court to hear challenge to Alberta coal policy removal

At least 9 interveners will seek to join a rancher’s request for a judicial review of Alberta’s decision

Dastkar, a new furniture store in Vernon, features handmade, unique furniture carved from wood and inlaid with brass in the Chiniot style. The business located on 43rd Avenue was started in December 2020 but is currently unstaffed due to COVID-19 staffing shortages. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
PHOTOS: Vernon’s hidden handmade furniture store

Owners of Shahi Pakwan Indian restaurant opened the South Asian furniture store in December 2020

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

The organizer of a Kelowna protest against COVID-19 restrictions was fined by the RCMP for the third time Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (File photo)
COVID-19: Organizer of Kelowna anti-restriction protest ticketed for third time

The individual’s latest ticket for $2,300 was handed out by RCMP at an anti-lockdown rally Saturday

Mount Boucherie Secondary School is one of three Kelowna schools with confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to an update from the school district Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (File photo)
COVID-19 confirmed at 3 Kelowna schools

Interior Health has confirmed exposures at Mount Boucherie, Springvalley and South Rutland schools

Half of the most expensive homes are on 2080 Mackenzie Crt, which is across the street from Revelstoke Mountain Resort. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
The 10 most valuable homes in Revelstoke for 2020

Combined, the properties are worth more than $35M

Most Read