The March 17 Cohen Commission hearing was on an internal DFO Briefing Note to the Minister of Fisheries about a virus that might be causing brain lesions and the decline in Fraser sockeye. When this memo was leaked by the Globe and Mail last November, my lawyer, Greg McDade, requested a day to address this because this subject seems key to the 19-year decline of the Fraser sockeye. Dr Laura Richards, DFO’s Director General of Science for the Pacific Region was called to the stand to speak to this issue.
Dr. Richards confirmed that DFO scientist, Kristi Miller, has indeed found evidence suggesting a virus, potentially Salmon Leukemia, could be having a devastating impact on the Fraser sockeye. Dr. Miller studies genomic profiles. Basically she reads the pattern of genes that have been switched on and off, a sort of living Braile that records the experiences of individual living creatures. This is a new field of science, but Miller’s work is so good it has been published in the world’s leading scientific journal, SCIENCE. When Miller reads the genomic profile of the Fraser sockeye, it says “retrovirus.” When Miller published her paper DFO would not allow her to speak to the press.
McDade introduced into evidence an email to me from the Minister of Fisheries that Laura Richard's had approved. The letter says DFO became aware of this potential virus in 2009, under questioning we learned DFO had in fact known about it at least a year before.
A crucial powerpoint by Dr. Miller was made public at this hearing titled “Epidemic of a novel, cancer-causing viral disease may be associated with wild salmon decline in BC.” (Download Miller powerpoint CAN185457) It suggests the genomic signature appears to be a retrovirus, that over 75% of Fraser sockeye are infected in some years and these infected fish were 16 times more likely to die than the healthy sockeye. She reports seeing this genomic viral signal in Coho and Chinook as well. In an extensive flowchart she notes Salmon Leukemia (called Marine Anemia by fish farmers) began spreading through fish farms in the early 1990s, (which is when the sockeye decline began). She reports that Salmon Leukemia can spread vertically, through the eggs, and also fish to fish. She downplays the relationship to salmon farms, but we learn later she was not allowed to test them. It is important to note this powerpoint is only Miller thinking out loud. It is not a finished report. However, she is a highly accredited scientist recognized by her peers.
Richards repeated several times that she was hoping and trying to work with Miller to find out more about this potential virus, but could not remember if Miller (a DFO employee) had actually been funded to continue this work. We know from the east coast cod collapse that DFO has prevented their scientists from reporting findings that counter policy, even if it leads to the demise of huge fisheries.
When McDade asked Dr. Richards if she knew what “vertically transmitted,” meant she answered that her brain was “fuzzy” on this at the moment. A vertically transmitted disease, means it probably did not come from the river. A virus this lethal should have extinguished itself, that continues to lethally infect large numbers of sockeye suggests a reservoir of it somewhere that the Fraser sockeye pass near to. If this viral reservoir is not in the river, and the suspect virus is found in fish farms on the sockeye migration routes ... unwanted linkages start cropping up.
A report attached to an October 2009 email states that Miller’s work is “controversial” and a communication strategy was required. McDade asked if this “strategy” was to not let the public know that a virus might be killing the majority of the Fraser sockeye. Dr. Richards countered this was “false.” However, the information was in fact kept secret until the Globe and Mail leaked it in November 2009. Richard's said DFO is not in the business of releasing information to the media.
In the next piece of evidence we see an email from Dr. Miller indicating that Laura did not want her to reveal specific information about this virus to the international US/Canadian Pacific Salmon Commission. Dr. Richards tried to counter by saying Miller had a false impression. So McDade began reading the email, where Miller writes that Laura (Richard's) did not want her to attend public meetings for fear that they would not be able to control information about the virus getting out.
Richard's repeats that Miller misrepresented the situation, that DFO was not trying to hide Miller’s work, but rather trying to get more information out of Miller.
I have attended many meetings now on the demise of the Fraser sockeye and have heard DFO bring up unconfirmed suggestions that squid, over-spawning, climate change and a potential lack of food could be causes of the demise. These are all theories that should be openly discussed, but why leave out the theory that a virus may be weakening and killing the majority of Fraser sockeye? Since Miller believes this is Salmon Leukemia, a virus that has been epidemic in salmon farms, this information runs counter to DFO policy that salmon farms have no impact. Is this why we wee never told?
McDade asked Richards why Speaking Notes provided to a Member of Parliament by DFO on the 2009 sockeye decline did not even mention the virus? (exhibit 622-A) Richards says there were other things in play, other factors, a host of factors….
McDade showed a funding proposal written by Miller asking for funds to test Atlantic salmon for signs of this virus in their genomic profile. Richard's believes these funds were granted. However, the letter the Minister sent to me contradicts Richards “DFO has not conducted research associated with this gene expression signature and salmon farms, and will not speculate on such a link.”
McDade asks Richards again if this work has been done or not. Richard's says she doesn’t know.
I have read many papers on Salmon Leukemia in farm salmon. It weakens the fish so they can die of many things or they can survive if life is not too stressful. This could explain the good 2010 year when plankton and water temperatures were exceptionally good, as well as, the 18 year decline and fish dying in the river of normally harmless parasites.
Under examination from Tim Leadem representing the Conservation Coalition we see an email from DFO communications, Terry Davis, asking if DFO has done any sockeye work to counteract the findings of Alexandra. Leadem asks, is DFO in the business of trying to counteract the work of non-DFO scientists?
Richards says “yes,” …. DFO is in the business of trying to find the truth.
Brenda Gaertner representing the First Nations Council at the Commission confronts Richards stating this potential virus is a very serious matter with potentially devasting effect on exercise of section 35 rights by First Nations.
Gaertner: What steps did you take to inform First Nations?
Richards: …. we are following normal processes
Gaertner: You are aware First Nations have informed DFO they feel there are conflicts between DFO’s obligations to First Nations and aquaculture?
Richards: it is a question of process
Gaertner: yes, process. What processes are you using to inform First Nations?
Richards: I rely on colleagues who are responsible to First Nations
Gaertner: Which colleagues
Richards: We are trying to get more information
Gaertner: There will always be more questions
Richards: …I have done everything possible to ensure Miller has funding
Gaertner: I don’t see briefing materials on this to First Nations… You are aware this could have very big impacts on First Nations rights?
Richards: My job is to inform up the line
Gaertner: As Regional Director of Science do you consider the Crown’s obligations to First Nations
Richards: It would have come into play regarding stock assessments
Gaertner: But it did not ... come into play.
The exhibits can be found at cohencommission.ca/en/Schedule/