Cohen Inquiry Hears Virus Bombshell

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Kristi Miller Steals Show Again as Salmon Inquiry Rocked by New Virus Bombshells
by Damien Gillis l The
Dr. Kristi Miller took the stage for a curtain call at the Cohen Commission into disappearing Fraser River sockeye yesterday, delivering a dramatic follow-up performance to her headline-grabbing run in September.

Among the bombshell revelations that emerged from the first of three extra days for the Commission – added recently to address the discovery of ISA virus in wild BC salmon – were the confirmation that ISA virus (or something very similar) is undoubtedly here in BC, and has likely been for at least 25 years; and Miller’s own detection of a new deadly virus in both farmed and wild salmon. The latter surprise was so fresh it came as a major shock to most everyone in the packed Wosk Centre for Dialogue, where this round of hearings is taking place.

There was plenty of techno-jargon on display at the hearing that had many – including yours truly – struggling to keep pace with the high-level banter on the stand; but between all the talk of PCRs, primers, probes and orthomyxo viruses emerged some truly dramatic revelations from Miller and three other key figures in the issue who testified on this day.
"The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."
– Carl Sagan                                           

The players were Dr. Fred Kibenge, director one the world’s two official reference labs for ISAv, out of the University of PEI; Dr. Are Nylund, who video-conferenced in from Norway, where he heads up the other World Animal Health Organization-sanctioned ISAv testing lab; Dr. Nellie Gagne, whose Moncton-based lab specializes in disease testing for DFO’s Aquatic Animal Health unit; and Dr. Kristi Miller of DFO’s Pacific Biological Station. Miller came to prominence in the national media when she delved into her leading-edge studies into a mystery virus potentially responsible for wiping out wild sockeye at the Cohen Commission a few months back – also revealing the enormous political pressure and censorship she has been facing throughout this work.

On a day so jam-packed with heated exchanges and dynamite revelations, it’s hard to know where to begin when making sense of it all – but here are the Cole’s Notes, seen through the lens of Miller’s testimony:

First off, Dr. Miller helped clarify the baffling claims coming from both the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and BC Salmon Farmers’ Association that “ISA is not in BC.” Given the number of positive test results from the world’s top labs, the certainty with which the Harper Government and its fish farming pals have claimed the disease is not here has puzzled many in the media and conservation community. Well, Miller cleared up the confusion in her testimony, explaining the sneaky linguistic trick these folks have been leaning on in making these boasts. More on that in a moment.

Three of the four scientists on the stand, the sole exception being DFO’s Nellie Gagne, were quite comfortable asserting there are indications of ISA virus - or a very similar virus or yet unknown strain of ISAv - here in BC. The same three also concurred there was no hard evidence of ISA causing mortality in wild fish…yet. They all asserted the vital need for more testing at this stage – something DFO has gone out of its way to avoid (with the exception of Miller, who has taken this work upon herself – to the great consternation of DFO managers, by whom she claims she has been completely ostracized for her recent investigations into the virus).

Back to the verbal sleight of hand contained in that statement, “ISA is not in BC.” As Miller explained, there’s no real doubt that ISA virus (ISAv) is here; but until the virus is actually demonstrated to be killing salmon, it’s fair not to call it a "disease". And that’s what these folks are hanging their hat on - by their definition ISA alone implies ISA disease. They are very careful not to call it ISAv (virus) – just ISA without the “v”, implying that there is no evidence of ISA disease here in BC - which appears, for the time being, to be technically correct, though patently and deliberately deceitful.

Much of the day’s discussion revolved around the nuanced differences in testing methods between the different labs. In total layman’s terms - which is all I'm capable of - Miller’s technique has been able to capture positive test results that Dr. Gagne’s lab in Moncton has missed. Meanwhile, Dr. Kibenge stood by his positive findings, as did Dr. Nylund, though he acknowledged that the degraded nature of the sample he examined prevented him from being able to reproduce the positive. But he was careful to say under questioning, “No, it’s not a negative – it’s a positive.”

Gagne’s lab, by contrast, has provided the inconclusive tests that the CFIA and salmon farmers have often cited in their defence – Note: not negative results, but rather “inconclusive”, for she has turned up positive results which were dismissed because they didn’t meet the lab and CFIA’s standards for an official positive result. Dr. Nylund had questions about Miller’s methods, but acknowledged that he didn’t know enough about them to call her results into question.

The fact is Miller is running what could be termed as a super-lab out of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. Because of the wealth of fish samples she has to draw on, dating back 25 years, and the sophistication of her equipment and methods, she’s able to process enormous volumes of tests and data compared to the other labs (several hundred tests a day compared to as little a 6 tests a week for some of the others).

Another key point Miller made on the stand was the fear she harboured of having all her years of samples confiscated by the CFIA, as the agency did to SFU professor Rick Routledge after his sockeye samples form Rivers Inlet came back positive for ISAv earlier this year – the catalyst, in fact, for the re-opening of the Cohen Commission. Miller indicated she felt intimidated by DFO managers and the CFIA from the strongly implied threat that they could storm into her lab and take away this enormously valuable genetic bank she oversees. “I was very concerned that that would be one threat that if the samples I’m working on were classified as ISA that I would lose the samples that are important for my genomics program,” she told the Inquiry.

It is thanks to this wealth of material that Miller was able to establish that ISAv has likely been here in BC at least since 1986 – as she was able to test livers from sockeye that date back that far and find evidence of the virus, which came as another shock amid the day’s proceedings.

The salmon farmers will be quick to change their story now from “There is no ISA in BC” to, “See, we told you – ISAv is here and has been since before we arrived, so it’s not our fault after all.”

They will try to make this case because it’s all they have left now that they’ve been stripped of their final fig leaves. But we also learned yesterday form Drs. Nylund and Kibenge that European and Canadian Atlantic strains of ISAv have been around for at least a hundred years and probably much longer. So have sea lice – all these pathogens and parasites are likely endemic to wild salmon.

What has changed is the introduction of these breeding grounds for disease that are open net pen fish farms. As Dr. Nylund explained, viral mutation and transmission occur at a much faster rate in farmed fish compared with wild because of the enormous densities of fish in these ocean feedlots, which incubate and propagate these pathogens. ISA was in Norway for decades – maybe centuries – before it devastated the country’s farmed and wild stocks. It wasn’t until the farms arrived – and grew in numbers and scale – that the problems really arose. Bear that in mind as the fish farmers spew their inevitable tripe in the coming days and weeks.

Once again, Miller acknowledged that she hasn’t found any hard evidence of ISA killing wild salmon in BC – she posited that we have stumbled onto a new strain of the virus unique to the North Pacific, which genetically closely resembles the European Strain of ISAv. But she also warned, “If the ISA that is virulent in Norway were to come here that would be a disaster.”

While Miller continues to search for another mystery virus that very well could be killing wild sockeye – referred to a different stages as salmon leukemia or a parvovirus, which was the focus of her testimony earlier this year at the Inquiry -  the real bombshell from yesterday was her very recent discovery of a third deadly virus affecting both farmed and wild salmon in BC.

Miller revealed that she had been invited in recent months to some farms in Clayoquot Sound owned by Canadian farmed salmon producer Creative Salmon, to see if she could help them get to the bottom of a mystery jaundice condition afflicting many of their fish. As an aside, Miller went out of her way to commend Creative Salmon for their open engagement with her, calling them at one point, “a very forward-thinking and cooperative company.”

Her experience with the rest of the industry has been quite the opposite. Miller related how Mary-Ellen Walling, head lobbyist for the BC industry, had reneged on a handshake deal made with Miller as she was about to take the stand the last time around at the Inquiry. Up until that point the BC Salmon Farmers’ Association had been obstructing all efforts to obtain fresh samples of their fish for testing – but in the glare of the media spotlight brought about by Miller’s appearance at the Commission, they’d promised at the last minute to share fish with her lab. Well, that didn’t last long, as Walling recently backtracked and refused to provide samples, insisting Miller stick to studying wild fish for now.

Miller related similar difficulties in getting samples from the Province’s farmed fish health auditor – explaining in tragicomic fashion how the samples they did eventually send over were thawed and thus totally degraded and useless to her.

Back to Clayoquot Sound and this new virus Miller discovered there. When she was invited to test Creative Salmon’s farmed Chinook salmon, Miller came up with two shocking findings: 1. A full 25% of these fish tested positive for ISAv (so there you have it – farmed fish in BC with ISAv, contrary to the claims of the Province’s fish health audit office and industry that after thousands of test over the years, they’re just sure it isn’t in their fish!); 2. A second virus known as piscine rheovirus – the cause of a deadly disease called HSMI (Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation).

HSMI has devastated farmed fish before in Norway – Dr. Nylund confirmed that it caused a 10% mortality rate and 100% morbidity in Norwegian farmed fish when it hit there a number of years ago. Miller not only confirmed the existence of the virus that causes this disease in Creative Salmon’s fish but subsequently found it in Fraser River sockeye as well! Scientific inquiries are generally staid and technical affairs, as anyone who’s attended the Cohen Commission much can attest – but this revelation hit the room like a lighting bolt.

If there is one take-away from this day of testimony from Dr. Miller and company, it is that we’re only beginning to grasp just how much we don’t know about these viruses, diseases and the relationship between them and farmed and wild fish. Which brings us to the key philosophical divergence between Dr. Miller and the Harper Government, which I’ll bet you dollars to donuts will find a way to get back at Miller and destroy her collection of samples as soon as the camera lights are extinguished and the buzz around the Commission dies down – an indication of how truly brave and rare a government scientist this woman is.

That difference turns on the Precautionary Principle – a point I myself raised on a conference call with the CFIA when their mouthpieces were telling media that “ISA is not in BC.” Miller poignantly summed up this divide in her testimony – and so it is to her whom the last word goes: “Their approach is to make sure that it’s not there; my approach is to ask if there’s any chance that it is there.”

If only we had more Kristi Millers and fewer sycophantic CFIA and DFO bureaucrats and fish farm flacks, perhaps our wild salmon would stand a chance.

The Cohen Commission continues its special hearings into ISAv today and Monday, before closing its doors for good.
Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon.

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