Discovery of deadly salmon virus devolves into “salmongate?”

Did Canada cover up the emergence of Atlantic salmon virus on the Pacific Coast for nine years?

In late October we ran the story that infectious salmon anemia (ISA), which has devastated Atlantic salmon and salmon farms in Chile was found in three wild Pacific salmon. It might have spread to west coast fish farms and wild Pacific salmon. Now it looks like the virus was really found in the Pacific much earlier by Canada, way back in 2002 in 117 wild salmon from the Bering Sea in Alaska to Vancouver Island.

According to a story in the LA Times, “Such non-disclosure by the Canadian government constitutes a breach of Canada’s international obligations to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), trade partners and to its neighbors in the United States, Russia and Japan who have valuable wild salmon resources . . . .”

This virus threatens a $2 billion plus salmon farm industry in Canada, and more importantly in the mind of many, the declining wild salmon of the Pacific Coast of North America.  Had this discovery been followed up, a warning raised in 2002, the prospects for containing this viral disease would have been much better.

The LA Times story reported “Someone should be going to jail over this,” John Werring of the David Suzuki Foundation, a Vancouver, Canada-based conservation organization, said in an email quoted in the Fishyleaks report. “Never in my over 20 years of doing my work have I seen such duplicity by our government.”

The only good news is there is some indication that Pacific salmon might be more resistant to the disease than their Atlantic cousins.



, ,



  1. Westcoast VancouverIsland. Avatar
    Westcoast VancouverIsland.

    What was also discovered at the Cohen Commission (the ongoing Canadian federal investigation into the disappearance of Fraser River sockeye) is that on the west coast of Vancouver Island near Tofino, the farmed chinook at Creative Salmon Farms have been dying from a mysterious “jaundice problem” for over seven years. The muzzled DFO scientist has just started a 3 year study to discover what ails them.
    Wild chinook in that area are almost extinct. Hmmm…
    When farmed coho in Chile got ISA, one of their presenting symptoms was jaundice. Hmmm….
    Should we not err on the side of the “precautionary principle” when it comes to our precious oceans and the wildlife?

  2. jdubya Avatar

    I don’t think we know anything about the relative resistance or sensitivity of pacific salmon to this virus.

    The Canadian govt has suppressed the science on this mess so we do not know much…is the virus found in 2002-2003 actually the Pacific version, or is an Atlantic transplant? If the latter, it may not take long to focus its genetic attention on the Pacific fish. Alternatively, if this an endemic Pacific virus, then will the fish rearing pens make it a hot virus as happened in the European pens?

    Regardless, the Canadian govt, via the Cohen commission, needs to get the pens out the public waters and onto dry private land where sewage and waste is treated appropriately. This situation is EXACTLY parallel to that of domestic versus wild sheep on public lands…..the native animals always take it in the shorts.

    Perhaps the main difference between the two situations, though, is the fact that that the salmon farmers would prefer the wild salmon in the Pacific would go extinct. It is an easy way to remove the competition and for them to raise the prices on the farmed fish. That is exactly the business plan they have followed in Europe.

  3. Wild Game Fish Conservation International Avatar

    Now is the time for Canadian and American politicians to demonstrate the leadership expected of them and for scientists from both great nations to work together to identify and correct the impacts associated with open pen Atlantic salmonfeedlots sited in both countries. Now is not the time for political fingerpointing and namecalling.

    1. mikarooni Avatar

      I’m not so sure about that. A long and very consistent record of experience seems to show that problems and bad behaviors tend to continue to be swept under their respective rugs until somebody steps up and gets the fingerpointing and namecalling started. I know it shouldn’t be that way. I know it’s sad. I know you don’t want to accept it. I don’t like it; but, that’s the way it is.

    2. jdubya Avatar

      Really? Well how else do you suggest getting the Canadian politicians to do the right thing, send them a box of candy canes?

  4. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    I’ve found it surprising that the same Canadian government that reacted with a great abundance of caution to coho salmon declines in the 1990s (closing fishing, attempting to eliminate even all incidental fishery impacts on the species and ultimately buying out the majority of the B.C. salmon fleet at huge expense) would have gone to such great lengths to protect the salmon farming industry from facing consequences of its potential impacts (potentially far worse) on the same wild stocks. Wild salmon fishermen were not protected from consequences. DFO’s wild salmon policy is a tribute to the precautionary principle, yet precaution is apparently nowhere to be found in official action regarding this virus. Part of the contrast may be that while the capture fisheries are managed by the federal government (Department of Fisheries and Oceans), I believe the farms are managed by the same provincial government that has been managing the province’s ancient temperate rainforest like an asparagus farm at the behest of Crown-Zellerbach, McMillan Bloedell and Weyerhaeuser. Still, the federal government is ultimately also responsible for the impacts of the salmon farms.

    1. jdubya Avatar

      It is my understanding that ultimately DFO is in charge of overseeing both the fish farming business as well as the wild fishery. So the conflict of interest is obvious and the Norwegian fish farm interests have deep pockets. Nothing new, right?

  5. mikarooni Avatar

    I’m sorry; but, this whole affair is like a re-run of the whirling disease scandal in the American West. Let me tell what I heard. The story that I heard was that one of the biggest initial hotspots and a very large contributor to the spread of the whirling disease was a large private hatchery operation in Utah. As one of the biggest members of the mass-produced syntho-rainbow-catchable hatchery mafia, this business had sweetheart contracts throughout Utah and in other states where the culture had tentacles, including contracts to supply state hatcheries, and was in bed on numerous levels. Even though state officials in Utah knew the hatchery was spreading disease, nothing was done about it because it was a family business and the GOP-then-governor’s family was the family. As evidence of the disease surfaced in Colorado, Colorado officials kept it quiet because of the political and business implications. It was only when famous fisheries, like the Madison and even the Yellowstone in the Park, started collapsing that the truth about whirling disease being part of the picture came out. In hindsight, if the whistle had been more aggressively and impolitely blown a bit sooner, it might have kept those last heavily-infected shipments quarantined in the ponds at that Utah hatchery; the whirling disease problem might not be so bad today; and we might even have had a better and more honorable EPA Administrator during those disgraceful dubya years.

  6. jdubya Avatar

    Mikarooni, everything you have said is basically fact but, in hindsight, the private fish ponds in Utah were only one of many sources of infection in the west. This whole deal was a major scandal in Utah (although of course the Gov and his family were well protected, not so the public servants that tried to enforce the law: they were fired). We are constantly finding new waters with WD in Utah and elsewhere (Strawberry Res. was declared infected last week) not because the EPA is not active (although wrong agency) but because the disease can be easily spread in water (the western irrigation system), bird poop, anglers, boats, etc. It is here to stay and will only spread far and wide.

    I see the salmon story a bit different for two reasons.

    First, the source of the virus in Chile has been shown to be from contaminated eggs that were shipped in from Europe. The same source of eggs is used in BC and so it is a complete crock to think that it will not happen again, and the Canadian DFO appears to care less because of the payroll associated with the fish farming firms.

    Second, I am convinced that ultimately the fish farmers would like to see the eradication of wild salmon. It lets them off the hook to pollute and lose fish and release pathogens all they want ’cause the sensitive species are already gone. And their major competition is wild salmon as more and more people turn away from the farmed version. So it is in their direct interest to kill the wild salmon stocks. Release of a hot strain of ISA in BC could well accomplish that goal.

    1. mikarooni Avatar

      I certainly don’t disagree. I would only add that the inland hatchery racket may be a lot more like your coastal salmon farming than you might think, including a shared dismissive attitude toward native fish. For the hatchery gangs, native cutthroat and the need to conserve them are just market obstacles, just like wild salmon are to your salmon farmers.

  7. DC Reid Avatar

    Coho (silvers) are killed in mass numbers when nearby Atlantic Salmon fish farms have no casualties:Google: ISA in coho in Chile. The first article, by Kibenge, 2001,, shows how deadly it can be for coho, even when Atlantic salmon are not affected.

    And Norwegian fish farms have taken ISA everywhere in the world that they have set up shop since developing the disease in Norway, which has been in continual outbreak for 27 years now. Look where ISA has been taken, after fish farms say how environmentally conscious they are:

    This is the weblinks to all of the 7 cases of ISA in BC this fall:

    Go read the links and come to your own conclusions.

  8. jdubya Avatar

    Really a remarkable day in BC today. There was a Facebook running account (since the BC government would not allow for live feed) of the opening of the hearings on this virus mess. One scientist in particular was outstanding: Dr. Kristi Miller reported that they could detect the virus, or one like it, back into the 1980’s. She will probably be sacked by the DFO now that she has blown the lid off that pot.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Ralph Maughan