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Correction: Ottawa, Victoria say no ISA in BC salmon

Are B.C. wild salmon at risk from Infectious Salmon Anemia? The federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, and the provincial Minister of Agriculture, say no evidence of ISA has been found. Meanwhile a wild-salmon advocate says the situation now deserves to be called "salmongate."

In a November 9 news release, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said:

Federal officials from the Canada Food Inspection Agency, along with officials from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and British Columbia’s Chief Veterinary Officer, provided a technical briefing yesterday on new test results indicating that there are no confirmed cases of Infectious Salmon Anaemia in British Columbia salmon.

The National Reference Laboratory has completed Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing, a sensitive but preliminary test, that has shown no presence of ISA in the samples provided; this is the same process that was reportedly used in the original claims of positive test results by individual sources. Officials provided information on the extensive actions underway by the Government of Canada to investigate claims about the presence of the disease, the timeline of test results, and the proper, science-based requirements for testing.

Officials also indicated that there will be investigations into the collection, handling, transportation and storage of samples by other sources that led to the original claims.

The release went on to include comments by Keith Ashfield, the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, and Don McRae, B.C. Minister of Agriculture. Ashfield said:

"It has been a difficult few weeks for the fishing industry in British Columbia, and across the country, while waiting for these preliminary test results to come back. Because some have chosen to draw conclusions based on unconfirmed information, this has resulted in British Columbia's fishing industry and Canada's reputation being put at risk needlessly.

"Our government takes the health of our fisheries very seriously. We have taken appropriate and immediate action to follow up on the allegations of the presence of ISA in B.C. waters. We can now confirm that, preliminary analysis, using proper and internationally recognized procedures, has found that none of the samples has tested positive for ISA. ..."

McRae added his comments:

"It is vitally important that we base our policy decisions on sound science so as to preserve and protect B.C.'s reputation as a reliable supplier of high quality seafood to the world. This is particularly true for the dozens of coastal communities that rely on wild and farmed fisheries to feed their families and maintain their way of life.

"Reckless allegations based on incomplete science can be devastating to these communities and unfair to the families that make a living from the sea. Since Premier Clark is currently on a trade mission to China, I have personally asked her to reassure our valued trading partners that now as always B.C. can be relied upon as a supplier of safe, sustainable seafood."

Writing on his blog Salmon Warrior on November 8, Ivan Doumenc said:

There are special times in the history of government when a scandal is so far-reaching, so undeniable, so universally despised, that it receives the suffix of "gate." A time of deep connivance between people, really, when the mere evocation of a public agency's name is enough to provoke collective laughter, shrugs, and bemused what the hell were they thinking looks. We are at one of those junctures. We are about to enter salmongate.

Doumenc went on to summarize a "surreal" press conference he had attended earlier that day in which the Canadian Food Inspection Agency had announced the absence of evidence for ISA in B.C. salmon:

Like a compromised fish sample, the quality of the government's message degraded rapidly. They had started with the solid, simple line that all results were negative. Then, under journalistic pressure, they retreated to a very different and much more complex place, that the results were actually inconclusive. And then, they moved to the realm of the incomprehensible, by stating that a positive could technically be read as a negative.

Doumenc asserted that "This disastrous media conference is not an isolated incident but instead the latest episode in a long chain of cover-ups, media blunders, and first magnitude screw-ups which indicate that the lid is about to come off in Canada’s salmon gate." He cited a number of concerns, including these:

•Back in September, it was revealed at the Cohen Commission that Dr. Kristi Miller's work on salmon leukemia was being directly controlled by the Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa. In particular, the PMO intervened to ban Miller from responding to media requests in the days leading to the publication of her research in the prestigious journal Science.

•At Cohen, we also discovered that DFO had cut off all funding – that's zero dollars – for Dr. Miller's critical research on salmon. To our knowledge, the funding still remains cut off to this day.

•When the first positive results of ISA were discovered, the Provincial Government made the accusation that the original samples that tested positive had been destroyed. In an ironically self-defeating comment (since it was later confirmed that the samples were fine), Liberal MLA D. McRae said in the B.C. Legislature: "Well, we've got another example of spinning media headlines and fear mongering from the opposition."

It was unclear whether further samples would be sought for more ISA testing, and where such testing might be done.

Note: An earlier version of this post attributed Ivan Doumenc's comments to Alexandra Morton. The Tyee regrets the error.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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