U.S. Senate approves rapid response to fish-killing virus

Oct 24, 2011

Alarm over a potentially deadly salmon virus has reached the halls of Congress. The U.S. Senate has approved an amendment that calls for a rapid federal response. Last week, scientists in British Columbia announced they've found the fish-killing virus in wild Pacific Salmon for the first time.

It's the second virus suspected in salmon deaths to be discovered this year.

Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) is not harmful to humans but has previously proven fatal to Atlantic salmon, especially those confined in fish farms. Its effect on wild sockeye is unknown.

The virus found on the two tested smolts has been identified as the European strain of the virus, which has been found in Atlantic wild salmon. Canada has imported more than 30 million Atlantic salmon eggs over the past 25 years from the U.S. and Europe, according to the Canadian government.

Emerging threat

Washington senator Maria Cantwell told her colleagues that the disease has also decimated salmon stocks in Chile.

"We need answers quickly from the scientific community," Cantwell said. "We need an action plan immediately."

The Western Fisheries Research Center lab in Seattle already plans to investigate the salmon virus. Cantwell's amendment calls for further response from the National Aquatic Animal Health Task Force to evaluate the risk the virus could have on salmon off West Coast waters and Alaskan waters, and to develop a plan to address this emerging threat.

The big unknown

How vulnerable are wild Pacific salmon and herring are to the virus?

"It could range from relatively severe to maybe not-so-severe depending on the susceptibility of these stocks," says microbiologist Jim Winton.

Some wild salmon advocates strongly suspect the disease was introduced to the North Pacific via farmed Atlantic salmon. They want saltwater salmon farms in Washington and British Columbia shut down while the outbreak is investigated.

The B.C. salmon farm industry insists tests on their fish have found no signs of infection.

The other virus threat

This is not the first time viruses have threatened B.C. salmon. The Cohen Commission was tasked with the investigation into the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River salmon run, and the results of the investigation point to Salmon Leukemia Virus (SLV), another lethal virus that kills wild Sockeye salmon.

Dr. Kristi Miller, a scientist for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, published an article in the U.S. journal Science last January on SLV and B.C. salmon, though the source of the virus remained inconclusive.

The Cohen Commission and Dr. Miller gained media attention over the summer, stemming from Dr. Miller's supposed "muzzling" to prevent her from interviewing with the media until she testified at the hearings. However, the CBC reports that the commission didn't actually stopped Dr. Miller from publishing any research.

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