Smoking gun

The biggest mystery in Canadian fisheries over the last decade has to be the case of the troubled Fraser River sockeye.

The biggest mystery in Canadian fisheries over the last decade has to be the case of the troubled Fraser River sockeye. One year they return in numbers resembling what is thought to be historic abundance, the next they are in steep decline. Only a few years ago the pathetic returns of sockeye to the upper watershed of the Fraser had the First Nations of the region in a state of high dudgeon.

Many culprits have been fingered in this whodunit. Some accuse the First Nations who fish the river from canyon to coast claiming that illegal black market fishing, in particular, is to blame. Others point to the years and years of gillnet fishing at the mouth of the river.  Still others speculate that the changing climate and the resultant high water temperature regimes might explain the plight of Fraser sockeye, while others claim that subtle changes in the ocean due to a climate change are the root cause.

While the debate over whether some or all of these factors may in part explain the baffling sockeye predicament, scientific super sleuth, Dr. Kristi Millar, of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, appears to have found the smoking gun.

Dr. Millar is a profiler; a genomic profiler. Genomic profiling is a leading edge scientific tool that enables detectives, like Kristi Millar, to examine how cells have switched on and off in response to stressors like disease or lack of food. After an alarming decline in Fraser Sockeye in 1992, her bosses at FOC/DFO put Dr. Millar on the case. Miller ran genomic profiles on the Fraser sockeye as they approached the coast and found that most of the fish were fighting a virus that weakened their immune system.

Two years earlier, Dr. Michael Kent, then the Director of the Pacific Biological Station, had found tumours in the brains of farmed salmon while studying a leukemia outbreak in salmon farms located near the Discovery Islands. He subsequently named the disease, plasmacytoid leukemia and published his research on it.  In an attempt to soften the connotative blow, the fish farmers renamed it marine anemia.

Millar observed tumours in the Fraser sockeye. She read the salmon cells attempting to track down make a viral match. She found it. Plasmacytoid Leukemia.

Salmon farms, like pig farms, chicken farms, and feed lots for cattle, are incredibly filthy places. Situating them in the world’s richest and most biologically valuable habitat on the planet was a sin of the first order. The fact that the people responsible for siting for these foul, lousy operations were working according to the antediluvian principle that the solution to pollution is dilution, and were completely unconcerned with the migratory routes of salmon, is a big time crime.

In 1992 fish farm feedlots were built on the migratory route of Fraser sockeye. The numbers of those fish promptly went into steep decline. Many discrete stocks make up the entire Fraser sockeye run. Most of the sockeye migrate past the Discovery  Islands. The sockeye bound for the Harrison River do not. In contrast to the many Fraser Sockeye runs, the Harrison fish increased in abundance. Then fish farms were sited along their migratory route. A generation after these farms went into production, the Harrison sockeye began dying unspawned in alarming numbers.

It turns out that a single salmon farm with 1,000,000 fish can shed 60 billion viral particles per hour during a disease outbreak. It seems obvious that the big killer of Fraser Sockeye may be  viral leukemia they are picking up when swimming past fish farms.

Dr. Millar published her findings in the prestigious Journal Science.  For her efforts she should have been given the highest praise and lavish funding to continue her good work on behalf of fish and us, right? I’m afraid not.

The privy council has forbidden her to speak to the press. She has not been allowed to attend meetings. Her research funding has been cut. The behaviour of her colleagues in FOC suggests that they have been told to treat her as persona non grata. When she arrived to testify before the Cohen Commission, an inquiry into the problems of Fraser Salmon, she was flanked by men in dark suits with ear buds, as if she was a Nazi war criminal on trial in Israel.

The scandalous treatment of Dr. Millar goes right to rot and disease in the highest echelons of the federal government. This is not Syria. In this country, we expect our leaders to encourage free and open scientific inquiry, especially when one of our most precious resources, Pacific Salmon is clearly at great risk.

Write the PM and your MP. Ask Harper how this could happen Canada.

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