Federal testing has refuted claims that several wild salmon sampled in B.C. were infected with a deadly virus that has ravaged farmed fish stocks elsewhere in the world.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said its tests at the national reference lab did not find any Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) virus in the samples.
“All the sampling done to this point in time is negative,” said Con Kiley, a veterinarian and acting director of the CFIA’s aquatic animal health program.
“There have been no confirmed cases of ISA in wild or farmed salmon in B.C.”
The CFIA retested all 48 salmon originally sampled by SFU researchers as well as hundreds more sampled at the same time that weren’t initially tested.
It also tested other samples independent biologist Alexandra Morton collected and claimed were infected.
Kiley said the results were consistent with the findings of a lab in Norway that also tested the samples.
He said some of the results must be considered inconclusive because of the poor quality of the samples, which had been kept in freezers for an extended period.
More tests are continuing, he said, adding the CFIA and Department of Fisheries and Oceans felt it important to release the findings so far.
Asked when the CFIA might be able to say with confidence whether or not B.C. is ISA-free, he said it may not be possible.
“‘All clear’ is not something we could probably ever say,” Kiley said. “It’s very hard to prove a negative. All we can do is state that we have not found a virus in all the sampling that’s been done already.”
Kiley said the CFIA is still assessing whether it needs to expand sampling of Pacific salmon as a result of the investigation.
Morton, who suspects fish farms imported the virus with Atlantic salmon eggs and transmitted it to wild stocks, said she’s not convinced by the CFIA results.
“I still remain very concerned,” she said. “If they’re giving British Columbia a clean bill of health because the samples they looked at were too degraded, what kind of confidence can I have in that?”
Morton wants a much-expanded independent program set up to sample and test for ISA in B.C. salmon.
Reports of the first-ever West Coast ISA infections had rocked the B.C. salmon farm industry. It also raised concern for wild stocks – not just in B.C. but from U.S. officials in Alaska and Washington State.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association executive director Mary Ellen Walling welcomed the results.
“We’re pleased to see the thorough way CFIA is following up, but are dismayed at the way campaigners used this to create fear about our operations,” she said.
The “inflammatory” unconfirmed report announced by SFU Oct. 17 seemed intended to “create as much hype as possible,” Walling said, adding it had potential to disrupt markets for B.C. salmon farms.
NDP federal fisheries critic Fin Donnelly called for more sampling and accused the federal government of being too slow to react to the reports of infections.
“This scare should serve as a wake-up call,” he said, adding it’s the wrong time for a planned $57-million cut to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans budget.
He wants the federal government to force fish farms to phase out open-net pens and move to closed containment systems, adding that would eliminate the potential of farms to transit disease to wild stocks.
ISA has mainly been a disease of farmed Atlantic salmon. The European strain can kill up to 90 per cent of infected Atlantic salmon but it’s thought to be less dangerous to sockeye.