Alarm growing about appearance of infectious salmon anemia on West Coast

Concern is rising over the discovery of a fatal virus in wild Pacific salmon that previously was limited to Atlantic salmon, which are also raised on West Coast fish farms.

Infectious salmon anemia was found in two wild sockeye smolts (young fish) collected on the central B.C. coast, the CBC reported.

"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, is investigating recent reports that infectious salmon anemia has been detected in wild sockeye salmon in British Columbia," said a statement issued Friday morning.

Federal officials said they're working with the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island, which conducted the initial testing on behalf of Simon Fraser University professor Rick Routledge, to confirm the finding.

"If the disease is confirmed through this analysis, the CFIA will, in consultation with partners and stakeholders, identify and take appropriate next steps," said the statement.

Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said Thursday the tests were "far from conclusive," Postmedia News reported.

The virus has never been found in B.C. farmed salmon, Ashfield said, but added the infected smolts would be tested further.

But Routledge, a fisheries statistician, said fish farms, common on the river where the smolts were collected, are the only plausible source.

Routledge arranged the initial test at the suggestion of salmon biologist Alexandra Morton, a longtime critic of the open-pen Atlantic salmon farms that dot the B.C. coast.

The virus found in the infected sockeye was identified as a European strain found in Atlantic wild salmon. It devastated Chilean fish farms in 2007-08, killing millions of fish. B.C. fish farms have imported more than 30 million Atlantic salmon eggs from U.S. and European sources over the last 25 years, according to Ottawa.

Despite Ashfield's assurances, three U.S. West Coast senators issued a statement Thursday that called on the National Aquatic Animal Health Task Force to analyze the risk of what they called "the Canadian virus" spreading.

"We need to act now to protect the Pacific Northwest's coastal economy and jobs," Washington Senator Maria Cantwell said in a joint statement with her two Alaska colleagues.

"There's no threat to human health, but infectious salmon anemia could pose a serious threat to Pacific Northwest wild salmon and the thousands of Washington State jobs that rely on them."

Morton, who has alleged sea lice from fish farms were responsible for drops in wild salmon returns, raised concerns about the virus after seeing B.C. Agriculture and Lands Ministry disease reports describing "classic" symptoms of salmon anemia, the Vancouver Sun reported.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency investigated but found no risk of the disease at the sites identified by Morton but she said the agency's inquiry amounted to "little more than a phone call."

A representative of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association also played down the report.

"Just because it is present in these Pacific salmon doesn't mean it's a health issue," said Clare Backman. "Pacific salmon are not as affected by ISA as Atlantic salmon."

Wild Pacific salmon numbers have been declining in recent years, with critics blaming everything from fish farming to global warming and the shrinkage of fish habitat due logging and development. A federally appointed commission is wrapping up an investigation into the collapse of the 2009 Fraser River sockeye run.

(Reuters Photo)