Sockeye salmon returning to the Adams River.

Virus deadly to farmed salmon detected in wild sockeye

Finding sparks fresh calls to close fish farms on B.C. coast

A potentially deadly marine flu virus found on many salmon farms worldwide has now been discovered in wild sockeye salmon off B.C.’s central coast.

Infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) has never before been reported off B.C.’s coast but was found in two of 48 sockeye smolts tested recently, according to SFU fishery statistician Rick Routledge.

“It is highly contagious and lethal to Atlantic salmon,” he said, adding the effects on sockeye are unknown.

The juvenile sockeye came from Rivers Inlet, about 100 kilometres north of a large concentration of salmon farms off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

The virus is the European strain of ISA and researchers suspect it came to B.C. through Atlantic salmon eggs imported from areas such as Iceland before infecting wild stocks.

“The only plausible explanation I can find is that it came from the fish farms,” Routledge said.

The data wasn’t tabled before the Cohen Commission, which last month heard evidence on the potential threat to sockeye from salmon farms, because the test results only just came back, Routledge said.

He tested the batch of underweight fish on the suggestion of biologist Alexandra Morton, who has been at the forefront of anti-aquaculture campaigns and has spent years researching the potential spread of pathogens from fish farms.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said it has not yet been able to review the findings and said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has yet to confirm them.

An industry representative said B.C. farmed Atlantic salmon have never tested positive for the virus.

If it has arrived here, he said, it would not likely pose as serious a risk to wild salmon.

But Morton said ISA-like symptoms have been reported in B.C. farmed salmon since 2006 and said the virus poses a “cataclysmic biological threat to life” in the North Pacific.

“Now we know for sure that it has hit B.C.,” Morton said, who repeated calls to shut down salmon farms here to protect wild stocks.

“If there is any hope, we have to turn off the source: Atlantic salmon have to be immediately removed.”

ISA can also infect herring and the virus killed millions of salmon at fish farms in Chile a few years ago, devastating the industry there.