Anne Murray: The truth about B.C. sockeye salmon—will it be found?

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      The future survival of the Fraser River’s wild salmon is of outstanding importance to British Columbia. This billion-dollar resource is priceless in terms of the ecosystem as a whole; salmon are more than just fish, they are a provincial icon. Fraser sockeye salmon had a great spawning run in 2010, with 34 million returning adults, three times as many as predicted. Yet this was a huge change from the preceding years, which saw an unprecedented and unexplained slump from an average of eight million spawners prior to 1992 to a mere 1.7 million in 2009.

      What is behind this extraordinary volatility and unpredictability? Has the problem that caused the decline been solved, or will it return? Justice Bruce Cohen’s Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River was instructed to find answers; the most recent round of evidentiary hearings, covering aquaculture, has just been completed.

      Attributing causal effects is complicated by the sockeye’s life cycle being distributed over marine, estuarine, and river habitats, with a four-year abundance cycle. The commission is considering 26 major reports and hundreds of submissions on factors implicated in the sockeye’s decline, including over-fishing, disease, environmental changes and pollution, the impact of fish farms located on migration routes, climate change, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ policies and management.

      Any conclusion on the cause of the sockeye decline must take into account their sudden rebound and it is feasible that more than one factor is involved. A disease outbreak is a highly plausible, and complex, candidate. Pathogens may not cause fatalities until an additional stress, perhaps from environmental factors, such as high water temperature or pollution, tips the balance. Alternatively, rapid, virulent disease outbreaks can occur among populations lacking immunity, despite an apparently healthy environment. Fungal diseases, such as chytridiomycosis in frogs and white nose syndrome in bats, have spread around the world, causing extirpations and population collapse in newly exposed populations. Honey bee colonies worldwide have been struck by Colony Collapse Disorder, associated with bee paralysis viruses. In this case, environmental factors, such as an introduced Asian mite called Varroa destructor, pesticides, and stress seem to contribute to hive collapse.

      If a pathogen outbreak is a cause, any role that salmon aquaculture plays in spreading the disease must be examined, given that open-net-cage facilities lie on migration paths of Fraser River sockeye. Aquaculture includes Atlantic salmon, as well as chinook and some other species, and was begun by Norwegian investment in the early 1980s. From 1989 to ’92, a drop in the price of salmon meant consolidation into larger facilities, with just a few owners. This was the same time that wild fish productivity began to plummet.

      Pathogens with the most serious impact on sockeye include viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Infectious hematopoietic necrosis (IHN) virus outbreaks caused significant mortalities in Atlantic salmon farms near Campbell River from 1992 to 2001, and have also been found in juvenile sockeye and chum in freshwater. The salmon leukemia virus is linked with plasmacytoid leukemia (infectious salmon anemia), which is common among seawater pen-reared chinook in Chile, Scotland, and Canada, and is also found in wild salmon. Outbreaks of this disease have caused death rates approaching 100 percent, and require total eradication of a farm’s stock to prevent spread.

      For long-term sustainability of all fish, regulatory government departments, and the aquaculture industry should be as open as possible about such problems. This has not been the case. The B.C. provincial government chose to block the public release of fish health audit records for months, until finally submitting to the Cohen commission. One of these records shows that despite a chinook salmon farm having 96 percent of sampled fish with symptoms of anemia, no “fish health incident” was reported or investigated. Is such a dereliction of duty caused by unsuitably close ties between government staff and the aquaculture companies?

      The federal government has also attempted to control information with implications for the harmful potential of aquaculture. In 2011, Kristina Miller, a scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and 14 co-authors published a study in the journal Science identifying a genomic signature (an expression of certain genes) in wild B.C. salmon that was predictive of whether the fish would survive migration and spawn successfully. The authors found associations between this genomic signature and numerous biological processes, especially those involved in response to viral infections and associated with lymphoblastic leukemia-lymphoma. The data led Miller et al. to hypothesize that “elevated mortality is in response to a virus infecting fish before river entry and that persists to the spawning areas”. Science is a highly prestigious journal and all published papers are subject to stringent peer review. The findings were relevant and of interest to many people. Amazingly, the Canadian Privy Council Office prevented Miller from speaking in public or to the media about her work. She has since stated that the virus could be a major factor in sockeye decline, but more research is needed. Whether there will be funding for that work is another matter, as DFO is now questioning whether her lab will be able to receive external sources of money.

      The possibility of a viral outbreak having an effect on wild salmon populations is highly plausible. I believe that the vast majority of British Columbians would like honesty and openness in regards to this issue. Unfortunately, the close links between government and the aquaculture industry create a lack of credibility; sweeping statements by representatives that deny any problems with fish farms or any impact on wild stocks merely increase suspicion of a cover-up. Scientists must be free to do the necessary research, regardless of the political and financial implications of their findings. We need facts and clarity, not obfuscation, deception, or hidden agendas. Our wild salmon are worth it.

      Anne Murray is an independent writer and naturalist, and the author of two books on the Fraser River delta—A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores or from




      Sep 19, 2011 at 1:54pm

      Thanks very much for this informative article. We must pressure DFO and our Government to transition open net salmon farms to closed - pen systems.

      Jim Ronback

      Sep 19, 2011 at 3:08pm

      Salmon eggs, alevins and fry have drastic odds against survival in reaching adulthood, finding their place of birth to spawn and fertilize their eggs, and die to start the life cycle of their progeny all over again. The typical survival rate for eggs and alevins is 15 percent before they reach the ocean. The eggs are subject to being unfertilized and the surviving alevins are subsequently affected by gravel movement, low oxygen in water, drastic changes in water temperature, toxic pollution, sedimentation, disease, predators, stream gravel mining and poor habitat conditions. The surviving fry are then subject to a further survival rate of 30 percent because of sea lice, viruses, lack of adequate food or space, predators (rainbow trout, doll varden, char, grayling trout, sculpin, steelhead trout, ducks, mergansers, terns, kingfishers), river blockage or diversion along the migration route and pollution. The smolts and adults then may encounter a premature death by ocean conditions, predators (other fish, killer whales), harvesting (e.g., sport, commercial, aboriginal food fishery). The surviving spawners then encounter deadly obstacles like water levels too high or low, predators (bears, otters, minks, birds), obstructions (dams, rock slides, log jams), diseases and then death after spawning. Only 0.3 to 3 % of the fry survive to come back to spawn after several years in the ocean.
      Many open questions still remain. Is this phenomenon due to nature or nurture? How much of this behaviour is programmed in their genes? Within their genes, what bearing do the lengths of the telomeres in the ends of the chromosomes of their cells have on their rapid senescence and survival rate? Is it possible to quantify the deadly risks for salmon and the rates at which they accumulate at different stages of their life cycle until they die?
      Risks associated with the proposed transporting of toxic and flammable jet fuel up the Fraser River via barges and Panamax tankers will not help their survival rate. Providing a pipeline to existing refineries in the Washington state is much safer and has a lower carbon footprint

      pw lg

      Sep 20, 2011 at 8:41am

      Thanks Anne for your continued and tireless work for the region's natural environment.

      One thing left out from Murray's short biography is, along with Susan Jones and Mary Tait, she has been long time crusader for the Boundary Bay ecosystem. From when developers and governments wanted to dredge and fill Boundary Bay for an international port facility to the lack of recognition by governments to fully acknowledge the role Boundary Bay plays in the Pacific flyway and as habitat for the maturing of salmon fry, Murray, Jones and Tait have been there.

      This trio should be acknowledged by the Order of BC rather than the group of privateers (Campbell and Dobell) who recently were awarded the Order.

      Greg Posten

      Sep 20, 2011 at 8:50am

      Another article with narrow focus.

      'Aquaculture' includes more that just salmon farms. There are hundreds of salmon enhancement hatcheries on our coast. Over 6 billion (yes Billion) hatchery salmon are released into the Pacific Ocean to mingle with Fraser River sockeye.

      Farmed salmon are regularly checked and reported for disease. No new or novel diseases have been found.

      No disease records have been kept for enhancement fish. You think that would be something to include when writing about 'mystery' diseases.

      Peter Stockdale

      Sep 20, 2011 at 9:11am

      An excellent summary and comments. The problems seem to resolve on two aspects. There seems to be really good circumstantial evidence that survival rates of Pacific Salmon has drastically declined since the advent of open net farming of atlantic salmon on the West Coast. This phenomenon of movement of exotic species into the environment of native species is so common for all continents and so many species eg mumps, measles smallpox etc causing die offs in indigenous americans and introduced by europeans. So why should we be surprised or defensive 'that here we go again'. The real problems are unwillingness on the part of governments federal and provincial to face up to it and deliberately muzzling their employees and scientists. Such efforts to muddy the waters or deliberate suppression of knowledge is usually seen in autocracies or fascist governments. As usual money talks and our present breed of politicians are now reduced to being puppets of the big corporations presumably because the latter fund election campaigns. This seems to be the way of both present and likely future until there is a Canadian Spring.

      You Needed Me

      Sep 20, 2011 at 4:52pm

      Oh Anne, I loved your music, but not fond of your careful ommissions (like Kristi Miller's clarification of the "muzzle" rumour) and conspiracy theories.

      You say "We need facts and clarity, not obfuscation, deception, or hidden agendas."

      Couldn't agree more and that's why it's important that folks ignore your fact poor and obfuscated opinion piece and read the actual transcripts of the proceedings at Cohen.

      Liz James

      Sep 23, 2011 at 8:32am

      I agree with Anne's thoughtful column and thank her for taking the time to research and write on this important and thoughtful topic and for being willing to voice her opinion.


      Sep 23, 2011 at 6:22pm

      Poor Anne did not read all the transcripts and exhibits from the inquiry. Instead she just chose to pick and choose and "polish" a little some of the testimony to make her case look credible.

      The fact is that researchers do not have this parvovirus sequence linked to a disease or linked to mortality. They do not know how it is transmitted nor do they have any pathology associated with it. More importantly, they do not know if it causes disease. Miller et al 2011 specifically state in Exhibit 1512; August 24, 2011:

      “Molecular screening for known viruses and intracellular parasites has not yielded a positive identity. Hence, the unhealthy signature does not appear to be the result of a known or well characterized pathogen. Until then, the involvement of a pathogen, and specifically a virus, is speculative and awaits confirmation. Even so, the genomic data do show that the condition of a large proportion of Fraser River Sockeye Salmon may be compromised before they enter the ocean as adults, and that perhaps we should not be looking solely at the environment for solutions to the declines. We hypothesize that the interaction between the compromised condition of salmon entering and increasingly poor and stressful environment is likely to be the key to the declines”

      During the recent testimony much has been made of these “classic symptoms” of ISA or what marine anemia is or is not. However, symptoms alone do not prove there is a disease. Dr. Kent had a good analogy in his testimony regarding this:

      “It would be like if you had a human that came to the hospital here in Vancouver and showed excessive haemorrhaging. You wouldn't say, well, that excessive haemorrhaging is consistent with Ebola virus. Well, you didn't test for Ebola virus so therefore we're going to say it had Ebola virus” - (Cohen Commission Public Proceedings, August 23, 2011, page 39).

      From what I have been reading from these researchers that have testified is that more information is needed. At the moment we are just speculating which does not further people’s knowledge of science as a whole. The Times Colonist journalist, DC Reid, had a recent column which erroneously suggested that ISA was already in BC waters. Is this a very responsible way to use Dr. Miller’s findings? The facts are there, but some people like Anne choose to ignore them. Every fish with "symptoms of ISA" in the provincial fish health database was tested for ISA using a highly sensitive and specific PCR test. From 2003 to 2010, all those fish tested negative for the virus (Cohen Commisson, Exhibit #1471).

      Anne also missed this during the inquiry. Too busy trying to make up conspiracy theories or remakes of Snowbird I figure.