Reports of deadly salmon virus in B.C. tied up federal resources for months

VANCOUVER – Reports that a potentially lethal salmon virus had been found in the waters off British Columbia last year drew a fast, co-ordinated response from the federal government, tied up resources of three federal ministries for months, and even required the assistance of Canadian consular officials in the U.S., newly released documents indicate.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act detail the lengths the federal government went to try to confirm and then respond to an October 2011 announcement by a Simon Fraser University professor that infectious salmon anaemia had been found in two of 48 sockeye smolts collected from the Central Coast.

Federal officials have repeatedly reported they haven’t been unable to confirm the presence in B.C. of the virus, which can’t infect humans but poses a serious threat to farmed and wild salmon stocks because it can cause anemia, hemorrhaging and lead to death.

In November, news broke that a Prince Edward Island lab at the Atlantic Veterinary College that deals with the virus had been audited by the World Organization for Animal Health after member countries became concerned the lab’s work was not consistent with findings from other researchers.

That lab also played a key role in the research that prompted the October 2011 announcement by Prof. Rick Routledge and salmon-farming critic Alexandra Morton.

A draft summary of a Dec. 12, 2011 conference call between Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, shows officials inside one DFO branch were still dealing with questions about the virus almost two months after Routledge’s announcement.

“DFO Science noted they have been seized with this issue for the past two months, and speaking with media and other interested parties has consumed much of their time over this period,” stated the document. “They posed the question about what more could they be doing.”

Listed as participants in the conference call were seven officials from DFO, two from the CFIA, and at least four officials from Foreign Affairs, as well as representatives of Canadian consulates in Seattle, Anchorage, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

News about the discovery of the virus broke Oct. 17, 2011, during a news conference held by Routledge and Morton.

Routledge announced tests conducted at the Atlantic Veterinary College on the smolts identified the virus as coming from the same European strain that wiped out about 70 per cent of farmed-salmon stocks in Chile.

Morton blamed open-net-pen salmon farms and called for the operations to be expunged.

Even before the announcement, DFO was preparing to respond.

Andrew Thomson, director of aquaculture management for DFO, tipped off his colleagues to the news conference in an 11:16 a.m. email, and almost 90 minutes later, an official in the department’s communications branch announced plans were in the works for a co-ordinated response with the CFIA.

“We will contact CFIA, which is the lead federal department for reportable fish diseases, to review how we will handle media relations with respect to this issue and ensure that our messages are consistent,” wrote Terence Davis, DFO’s regional director of communications in an email that same day.

Davis said officials within DFO’s science program were also reviewing literature to determine “if there is scientific research available on the potential impacts of ISA on Pacific salmon.”

The following day, Thomson said in an email that there was only a “presumption of disease” until the department’s national reference laboratory could confirm or deny the results. He also said the CFIA would get the original fish samples from the university and send them for further testing.

By Oct. 21, the department was preparing a statement by Keith Ashfield, minister of fisheries and oceans, warning Canadians and people around the world from “jumping to conclusion” that the virus had been found in B.C.

Stephen J. Stephen, director of biotechnology and aquatic animal health science branch, also wrote in an email that day that an official with the CFIA had been in contact with several countries, including the U.S., on the issue.

At the beginning of December, the CFIA announced followup tests couldn’t confirm the presence of the virus, and the government was moving ahead with a surveillance plan.

Just how much time and how many resources federal officials were dedicating to the issue becomes clear in that Dec. 12, 2011, draft summary of a conference call between the three federal agencies.

Unfortunately, the entirety of what was said remains unclear because much of the document has been blacked out.

During the conference call, officials discussed how the federal government could engage Americans on the issue. The summary indicated a “climate of mistrust” persisted in the U.S. even after the announcement by the CFIA at the beginning of December.

It also noted the CFIA had “extensive discussions” with partner agencies in the U.S., and consular officials working south of the border were taking calls on an ongoing basis and were asking about spokespeople who could answer technical issues.

“The Los Angeles consulate spoke to interest they have seen, including requests from the L.A. Times and the need to be able to respond to these types of inquiries,” states the document.

Tom Robbins, a spokesman with Fisheries and Oceans, said he doesn’t think any costs have been attached to the federal government’s response to the Oct. 17 announcement.

While Routledge said he anticipated a response from DFO and the CFIA, he didn’t think any other agencies would have been involved, especially consular officials.

Routledge said he believes the federal government was working in the best interests of the salmon-farming industry.

“It’s very clear to me the role of promoting the industry was given precedence here,” he said. “I would say that because they did not take the threat to wild salmon to heart, and the evidence that I have for that is that they did not go out and collect fresh samples.”

Not surprised by the response was Morton.

“This is now an international incident that they’ve got going on here because what about the countries that are buying farmed salmon from British Columbia thinking that this is an ISA-free zone?” she said.

Meantime, the World Organisation for Animal Health, known as the OIE, announced earlier this week the conclusions of its audit on the Atlantic Veterinary College lab will be reported to its elected governing bodies and finally, to its World Assembly of Delegates, in May 2013.

The organization has already stated publicly a “series of weaknesses in the system have a direct impact on the quality of diagnosis conducted by AVC.”

As a result, the college could lose its designation as a international reference laboratory focusing on the virus, but it won’t find out until May.

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