Key components of a report, which anti-salmon farming activists claim was hushed-up by government and the aquaculture industry, have been in the public domain for a decade

Beyond the headlines of a not-so-secret salmon virus study

Key components of a report, which anti-salmon farming activists claim was hushed-up by government and the aquaculture industry, have been in the public domain for a decade

By Fabian Dawson

Over the past week, the anti-salmon farming lobby, led by their activist-scientists, have been stirring the debate over salmon farming, claiming that they have successfully made public a 10-year-old study about a virus that could potentially impact wild stocks in British Columbia.

They allege that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in collusion with the industry has kept the study under wraps and that it took the Office of the Information Commissioner to order its public release.

The central claim of secrecy about the science published by the   Globe and Mail   and the Guardian blatantly misrepresents the issue because the media refused to do its homework and fact-check the statements made by the activists.

Let’s address the issue of secrecy first – an allegation dripping with conspiracy circulated by the activists to attract media attention and whip up their brainwashed keyboard warrior-following.

The key player in this not-so secret report, being used by the activists to spread fear rather than facts, is Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders  , a federal fisheries scientist known for her anti-salmon farming stance.

She was invited in 2011 by Tofino-based Chinook farmer, Creative Salmon, to be part of a study to look at possible environmental triggers in relation to jaundice in fish.

Her conclusions in this report and other similar findings from other studies have been in the public domain for a decade.

Within months after the study began, Dr. Miller-Saunders told the Cohen Commission hearings into declining wild salmon stocks, that she had found PRV or the Piscine Reovirus (PRV) in her tests.

She told the inquiry on Dec 15, 2011, that Creative Salmon was “a very forward-thinking, cooperative and responsible company”, adding “I did not discuss with them ahead of time exactly what I was testing for there.”

“We did find fish positive for the PRV which is thought to be causing HSMI (heart and skeletal muscle inflammation),” she said in the first public reveal of the study.

 Dr. Miller-Saunders now says it is a “travesty” because “the study could not come to light 10 years ago.”

There is little or no mention of the two other scientists involved in the study – Dr. Sonja Saksida who was then with the BC Center for Aquatic Health Sciences and Dr. Gary Marty, the senior provincial fish pathologist at the Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford, who did not agree with her conclusions.

Dr. Miller-Saunders’ public disclosure of the study at the Cohen Commission hearings was followed up by extensive media coverage on the study and PRV in BC waters.

Not to be outdone, BC’s loudest anti-salmon farming activist, Alexandra Morton, who labels herself as an independent biologist, rushed out to buy farmed salmon in supermarkets to test for PRV.

She then declared in April 2012 that PRV was present in 44 out of 45 fish she had sent to Prince Edward Island for tests and referred to the Cohen Commission testimony by Dr. Miller-Saunders. Of course, there was no mention of how the test fish, supposedly infected with a deadly virus, survived to be harvested and sold.

Now on her Facebook page she projects surprise about the so-called secret study writing “Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Creative Salmon hid research in Tofino FOR 10 YEARS that the Norwegian virus PRV in salmon farms is causing blood disease in Chinook salmon.”

In July 2016, as part of the legal case, Namgis vs. Minister of Fisheries, in which Morton was a key party, a summary of the study by Dr. Miller -Saunders was submitted as part of a 1,240-page submission from the lawyers representing the Namgis First Nation.  They are public documents, for anyone to view, including those who are claiming now it was being kept under wraps.

In July 2017, Dr-Miller-Saunders used data from the study involving Creative Salmon and made public another paper on PRV in Conservation Physiology.

That same year, the study was leaked to the Pacific Salmon Foundation, which essentially made it public in another paper that was published Science Advances.

There are other examples that show the so-called secret report, and its key conclusions were in the public domain, contrary to what the anti-salmon farming activists are claiming now. This includes an article in the  Globe and Mail published on October 15, 2020 , where Dr. Miller-Saunders talks about the study and her findings.

Back then, The Globe and Mail said it had already obtained the study. It makes no mention of having reported on the study in its latest article earlier this month headlined Why a federal salmon study that found viruses at B.C. fish farms took 10 years to be released.

Both DFO and Creative Salmon have said that there is no attempt to hide the report and in fact have been working towards getting it published officially.  But the study done under the Aquaculture Collaborative Research and Development Program requires all authors to agree to the contents of the paper before it is officially released.

That consensus has still not been reached and the study has not been subject to a peer review.

“The release of the final report has been delayed because the authors do not yet agree on the wording in the final report. The authors continue to work towards agreement. Coauthors last submitted comments on the draft report to Dr. Miller-Saunders on April 1, 2021, and we now await her response,” Dr Marty told SeaWestNews.

Components of this study have already been released to the public,” he said.

Which brings us to the science about the study.

The central underpinning of the anti-salmon farm activists is that any science that challenges their observations, should not be believed and that extends to PRV.

PRV has been present in Pacific Northwest waters long before any fish farms began operating in B.C. It has been detected in healthy fish populations, showing that its presence does not mean disease occurs.

Multiple DFO and peer reviewed studies have resulted in consensus that PRV-1a is a local strain of PRV, a common virus that does not make wild or farmed fish sick. Viruses with the same name often occur as different types in different parts of the world. Some types might cause disease whereas others do not. PRV is an example of that. PRV is also not a risk to human health.

In her original conclusion following the Tofino study involving 36 fish samples, Dr Miller-Saunders herself reported that a high prevalence of PRV may have an association with jaundice but does not appear to be causation.

But her tune has changed to accommodate the unscientific apocalyptic prophesies by those who want to kill the sustainable salmon farming industry in BC waters.

Dr. Miller-Saunders’  claims have already been debunked widely because she uses an “unproven theoretical approach and makes assumptions to assert PRV is responsible for heart issues and jaundice in wild salmon.”

Her conclusions grossly extrapolate the findings of the study to show very real risks associated with PRV transmission from farmed salmon to wild Pacific salmon, where there is none, say fish health experts.

Dr. Kenneth Warheit, fish health and genetic specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has said activists have failed to find a single study to support the claim that PRV from open-water pens will harm wild fish.

Kyle Garver a research scientist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and a PRV expert has also concluded that PRV has been ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest for many decades, and that it isn’t linked to any fish disease or mortality.

The virus does not kill sockeye salmon or Atlantic salmon, the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS), which reviewed Canadian and international PRV data, concluded. The science panel said farmed Atlantic smolts going into the ocean do not have the PRV virus. “They are going to sea without PRV, and they are picking up PRV once they are at sea,” the panel reported.

In 2019, two published studies confirmed what was already previously concluded by other scientific analysis – that the claims about PRV by the anti-fish farming lobby are exaggerated.

One study, published in Scientific Reports, was conducted by scientists from the Pacific Biological Station and the provincial government’s Animal Health Centre. The other, published in Frontiers in Physiology, was conducted by scientists at the University of BC and the Pacific Biological Station.

The studies found that the strain of PRV found in B.C. fish to be benign.

Last year, a group linked to the activists in BC quietly corrected their study which suggested wild stocks exposed to marine aquaculture sites have much higher rates of PRV infection.

The correction to their original claims, which was posted in the journal PLOS ONE, found the data “does not support the conclusion of the original analysis that the proportion of PRV infection in wild fish was related to exposure to salmon farms”, said Dr. Marty.

More recently, prominent fish health specialists in the Pacific Northwest reported that the dubious claims based on questionable science are causing unnecessary controversies over salmon farming in British Columbia leading to a waste of public resources.

This study looked at Dr. Miller-Saunders’s PRV conclusions describing it to have “caused needless public concerns.”

“The overall scientific consensus was that the northeastern Pacific variant of PRV-1a is not a significant disease-causing agent in Pacific salmonids contrary to the misinformation claiming the virus is a threat to wild fish populations and resource sustainability,” said the new study, which is supported by 18 fish health professionals.

So why are the activists doing this and misleading the public with the help from the gullible media?

The answer lies beyond the headlines, where you will find a well-funded campaign by the activists and their activist-scientists to create controversy where there is none in order to  influence the upcoming Federal decision on   expiring salmon farming licences in BC  .

(Image courtesy of Creative Salmon shows a fish farm employee on the west coast of Vancouver Island)