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Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd. maintains an operation in Shelburne. Kelly Cove Salmon is run by parent company, Cooke Aquaculture. (BRIAN MEDEL / Yarmouth Bureau)

Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd. maintains an operation in Shelburne. Kelly Cove Salmon is run by parent company, Cooke Aquaculture. (BRIAN MEDEL / Yarmouth Bureau)

SHELBURNE — When caged salmon exhibited some rather odd behaviour in their Shelburne Harbour pens earlier this month and then began dying, Cooke Aquaculture staff took immediate action.

Salmon in two cages suspected of having infectious salmon anemia were humanely euthanized after routine testing raised suspicion of the virus, the company said Friday in a news release.

The release was issued several days after fish were first brought to a provincial pathology lab in Truro for testing.

Euthanasia is considered a proactive fish-health management strategy and is employed by salmon farmers around the world, the company said in the release.

On Feb. 10, suspicions of the virus were raised during routine surveillance and testing at a salmon farm in Nova Scotia, the release said. It did not specifically naming Shelburne Harbour, but several sources confirmed the fish were from a farm in that community.

Infectious salmon anemia is a naturally occurring virus that spreads slowly and is present in wild fish in many parts of the world, including Eastern Canada and the United States, the company’s statement said.

That’s true, said Dr. Roland Cusack, the provincial government’s aquaculture veterinarian.

Though there is not a great deal of literature about the frequency of the virus in wild fish populations, Cusack said.

“It’s just not something that is well studied,” he said. “We have …. quite a lot of experience in dealing with it in farmed populations but there’s not very much on wild populations.”

Fish farm workers watch for odd behaviour or increased mortality in the fish, said Cusack.

When the company saw that type of behaviour “they gave us a call at the veterinary pathology lab in Truro and brought fish to us to examine on their behalf,” he said. “They acted very quickly.”

The fish were brought to the lab on Feb. 2, he said. The test results, completed on Feb. 9, indicated there was a suspicion of the virus.

The dates quoted by Cusack differ from those mentioned in the Cooke news release. Attempts to reach company representatives for an explanation Friday were unsuccessful.

Cusack said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is now heading the investigation and doing more testing.

In its release, Cooke said the presence of the virus has not been confirmed by testing but confirmed that the federal inspection agency is now conducting further tests.

“While ISA is harmful to salmon, it poses no risks to human health,” the release said.

Even though it is only a suspected case, the company said it decided to voluntarily euthanize the fish immediately rather than waiting for the results of the federal testing, which could take several weeks, because it was a proactive move.

“Fish are a farmed animal and they’re no different than other farmed animals, said Cusack. “There are various agents that can affect their health. The reality is that all animals …. get agents that affect their health. Fish are no different.”

Wild fish that might swim close to the cages could become sick because the virus is a water-borne disease, said Todd Dupuis of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

“It’s a wild disease. It’s a natural disease. When fish are stressed they pick it up just like a flu virus,” Dupuis said. “We want to make sure that both the industry and the government are very proactive in getting this under control because it can have an impact on wild fish.”

The citizens group Mayday Shelburne County is worried about a potential outbreak.

“Absolutely it’s a concern. It’s like history repeating itself,” said group spokeswoman Sindy Horncastle.cct “B.C., New Brunswick, Chile, Scotland, Norway have all had ISA outbreaks. It’s not a matter of if these infections are going to happen; it’s a matter of when.”

In other parts of the world where the virus has been reported, disease and parasite problems have followed, Horncastle said.

Mayday Shelburne County wants governments to stop issuing leases for huge fish farms, she said.