The Cohen Commission: Egg Trade

BY RAY GRIGG, SPECIAL TO COURIER-ISLANDER JANUARY 20, 2012

(Editor’s note: In a letter to the editor in Wednesday’s Courier-Islander Dr. Ian Alexander, Executive Director, Canadian Food Inspection Agency made the following statement: "I want to be very clear, that to date no trace of ISA has been detected in B.C. salmon."

Also, in another letter to the editor in Wednesday’s Courier-Islander, Gary Marty, BC Ministry of Agriculture, made the following statement: "As part of my work as the BC Ministry of Agriculture’s fish pathologist, last fall I reviewed… results in our diagnostic laboratory from five farmed chinook salmon re-tested for ISAV.

"Samples from all five fish yielded a band that was very similar to our ISAV-positive control, but when we sequenced the PCR product to determine its identity, it didn’t match anything. The closest match was mouse (see Cohen Commission Exhibit #s 2079 and 2080.)

"I view mouse-like results in a test for a salmon virus as evidence of "nonspecific amplification." This means that the test did not work properly and needed to be redone; it is not grounds to report to OIE. The test was repeated several times, and all results were negative – no virus.")

The source of the suspected infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAv) that was reported to be found in BC’s wild salmon would have almost certainly from imported Atlantic salmon eggs, the international trade that at one time provided coastal salmon farms with most of their stock. The salmon farming industry, of course, says that ISAv is not here, although evidence given at the Cohen Commission’s extraordinary three days of hearings on Dec. 15, 16 and 19 suggests otherwise.

Of four labs testing for ISAv in wild fish samples, the only one seemingly unable to find it is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s facility in Moncton, New Brunswick, that used degraded tissue samples.

Research tests by a reputable lab in 2004 found 100 per cent infection in Cultus Lake sockeye – inexplicably never pursued by federal agencies responsible for the health of wild salmon. Testimony from Dr. Kristi Miller showing genomic markers in archaic samples of BC wild salmon indicates that ISAv has been here since 1986.

Documents presented at the Cohen Commission suggest that the possible arrival of ISAv coincides with the early importation of Atlantic salmon eggs to West Coast salmon farms. Supporting this connection is a recorded litany of warnings from experts in BC’s Ministry of Environment (MOE) and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), all alarmed about the inherent danger of importing exotic diseases to the West Coast ecology through Atlantic salmon eggs. This evidence is worth noting.

. 1982: representatives of Canada’s government meet with Norwegian and Canadian business interests to consider "alternative approaches to inspection and certification of salmon culture facilities" for the importation of Atlantic salmon material from Norway.

. 1984: Canada’s DFO approves limited importation of Atlantic salmon material, an event that is not announced publicly.

. 1985: 300,000 eggs are imported, subject to a "Draft Importation of Salmonids Policy" requiring a 12-month quarantine. But Dave Narver of MOE expresses concern to his Assistant Deputy Minister about the policy.

"I am getting increasingly anxious about our importing of Atlantic eggs," he wrote. "My concern is shared by many of my colleagues in both provincial and federal agencies. The fish health measures agreed to jointly by DFO and ourselves in the fall of 1984 are not foolproof. They are based on statistical sampling, so we are taking a risk when it comes to the introductions of virus. That means a risk to the nearly one-billion-dollar wild salmonid fisheries of British Columbia." An additional 130,000 Atlantic salmon eggs are imported from Scotland.

.1986: Narver reiterates his concerns to Pacific Aqua Foods about an unsigned and non-public policy. "We are deeply concerned with the fact that the risk of exotic diseases is dependent on both the number of imports and their size. Government has made a commitment to support aquaculture, but surely not at the risk of a nearly $1 billion resource in the wild salmon fisheries of British Columbia. The direction the aquaculture industry wants us to go will insure that we import unwanted diseases that can impact on government hatcheries and " wild stocks.

Narver sends a similar letter of concern to Stolt Sea Farm Canada Inc.

"To start with a general comment, I am disappointed with what appears to be the prevailing attitude of a number of companies, that fish health regulations to protect wild stocks are great, but if we continue the way the aquaculture industry seems to dictate, we can expect to introduce new diseases." 1,144,000 eggs are imported from Scotland.

. 1987: Federal-Provincial Policy for the Importation of Live Salmonids is signed, but quarantine time is reduced to four months to reduce the industry’s cost of dealing with waste water.

Pat Chamut of DFO expresses a trade concern. "If challenged in court over denial of any imports, what is the legal likelihood we would be successful in denying imports?"

1,281,000 eggs are imported from Scotland and Washington State.

. 1990: Salmon farmers in the US claim Canada’s import restrictions are a trade barrier. Chamut reiterates his concerns to the Policy Division of Pacific Rim and Trade. "Continued large-scale introductions from areas of the world including Washington State, Scotland, Norway and even eastern Canada would eventually result in the introduction of exotic disease agents of which the potential impact on both cultured and wild salmonids in BC could be both biologically damaging to the resource and economically devastating to its user groups."

. 1991: Numerous warnings are written by DFO and MOE officials, all concerning the dangers of importing diseases from foreign salmon eggs – a danger compounded by trade agreements allowing the salmon farming industry to import larger numbers of eggs. Narver’s letter from MOE to DFO is typical for 1991. "The proposed revisions not only open the window indefinitely but essentially allow for unlimited numbers of eggs. I know your Department argues that this has to done to avoid a Free Trade ruling."

Subsequent to these warnings comes a 1991 letter from BC Packers’ Director of Aquaculture to DFO. "As we have no other disease-free source available [other than Iceland] anywhere in the world, I am requesting that you reconsider your position, particularly in the light of the expected change in the DFO regulations." Regulations are duly relaxed and from 1991 to 2010 at least 23 million eggs are imported into BC waters, mostly from sources other than Iceland.

This evidence from the Cohen Commission indicated that international sources of eggs could be diseased and that the aquaculture industry wanted to import eggs, despite the risks.

Given trade agreements and the political leverage of the salmon farming industry to reduce precautionary regulations – the direction it "seems to dictate," in Dave Narver’s damning words – the arrival of ISAv and other exotic diseases in BC’s marine ecology is inevitable.

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