News / Vancouver

Researchers detect signs of salmon virus in British Columbia

New study published in Virology Journal claims European infectious salmon anaemia virus may be present in British Columbia.

Atlantic salmon swim in a pen in Eastport, Maine in this October, 2008 file photo.Atlantic salmon farms around Vancouver Island have begun testing and formed a special outbreak management team after a virus outbreak at one farm led to a site quarantine and the cull of more than half a million fish.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/

Atlantic salmon swim in a pen in Eastport, Maine in this October, 2008 file photo.Atlantic salmon farms around Vancouver Island have begun testing and formed a special outbreak management team after a virus outbreak at one farm led to a site quarantine and the cull of more than half a million fish.

A new study published in the journal Virology suggests that the salmon industry’s most feared virus is in British Columbia, according to researchers.

Researchers, including biologist Alexandra Morton and Simon Fraser University’s Richard Routledge, tested more than 1,000 farmed and wild fish and found 79 “non-negative” cases for the European variant of the infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) virus.
While detection falls short of Canada’s regulatory threshold (successful virus isolation in a cell culture), Morton said signs of the virus’ genetic sequence in the results raises concerns.

“My concern is that it will mutate into something that can infect wild fish,” Morton told Metro. “It could have a devastating effect. People depend on wild salmon, it’s still a part of our economy so there’s an enormous risk to wild salmon.”

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has publicly disputed the study’s methodology and “the ethics of the researchers involved given they history of reporting false positives with respect to ISA.”

“ISA has never been detected in fish on the West Coast of North America,” said Jeremy Dunn, the industry association’s executive director, in a statement to Metro. “This report claims to find an ISA sequence, but researchers admit they were unable to verify it using necessary, globally standard follow-up tests. Their study also confirms they found no evidence of the ISA disease in B.C. fish.”

Researchers were not granted access to fish farms so samples had to be taken from farmed seafood, Morton said.

She says there’s a need for more sensitive screening for the ISA virus.

An outbreak of the disease in Chile between 2007 and 2010 cost its salmon farming industry upwards of $2 billion, Morton said.

Unlike B.C., Morton said Chile does not have a wild salmon industry so the ramifications of an outbreak here could be even worse.

In a statement, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs called on the federal government to take action on the findings and increase testing of salmon farms.

“For years, we have warned the federal and provincial governments about our concerns with the imminent and devastating effect salmon farms have on wild salmon stocks,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin. “Today these fears are heightened.”

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