Fraser River salmon
12:26 pm
Wed July 27, 2011

Controversy growing in Canada over ‘muzzling’ of salmon expert

Government officials in Ottawa are getting heat for apparently muzzling a scientist whose study discovered that a viral infection – which has been referred to as "salmon leukemia" – may be the cause of salmon stocks crashing off Canada’s west coast.

The Vancouver Sun reported that the Privy Council Office, which supports the Prime Minister’s Office, stopped the study’s lead scientist “from talking about one of the most significant discoveries to come out of a federal fisheries lab in years.”

The Canadian government told the Postmedia News, which wrote the story, that scientist Kristi Miller has not been permitted to talk about her work because she is expected to testify later this summer before a commission looking into the decline of the Frazer River sockeye salmon.

The salmon study was published in Science in January. The topic is of paramount importance because the fish returning to the Fraser River are one of North America’s last great sockeye salmon runs and some years half of the returning sockeye die before spawning and other years as many as 95 percent of the fish die.

Wired Science reported that the study showed fish returning to the Fraser River showed patterns of gene expression usually seen when a body fights a virus. The article in the Sun reported that one possibility was a virus associated with leukemia, which can be transmitted from fish to fish.

“The findings open up a range of new questions,” Wired Science reported. “If the pattern is indeed caused by a virus widespread in the Fraser, where did it come from?  Was it introduced, just as infectious hematopoietic necrosis — a lethal virus endemic in Pacific salmon — has been transferred around the world? If it was always there, did it suddenly evolve into a more virulent form? Or is something else exacerbating its effects?”

According to the story in the Sun and other media, more than 7,400 journalists were notified by Science that it was publishing Miller’s “Suffering Salmon” research. However, Miller was not allowed to give interviews to any of them.