A couple of positive tests out of many negatives by a Simon Fraser University researcher and a seven-year old draft manuscript from a government scientist apparently combined to put the reputation of Canada’s wild and farmed Pacific salmon at risk for a while.

Infectious salmon anemia (ISA) is a disease of Atlantic salmon, and was thought to not exist  on Canada’s Pacific side.  But when a Simon Fraser professor working the central coast of British Columbia sent heart tissue samples to one of the world’s top ISA labs at the University of Prince Edward Island, two of the 48 samples turned out to be positive.

If correct, those results marked the first time the virus, which poses no risk to people but has killed fish in farms in Europe and Chile, had been found in the Pacific.  

At about the same time, a 2004 draft of a paper summarizing results of testing done on Coho, pink, and sockeye salmon from southern BC, southeast Alaska, and Bering Sea waters surfaced.  It concluded “an asymptomatic form of infections salmon anemia occurs among some species of wild Pacific salmon in the north Pacific.”

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans did not allow the draft to be published.

These “smoking salmon” reports sparked a fire drill of testing by the federal government of Canada with help from the Province of British Columbia and the results are in.

In a technical briefing Friday (Dec. 2) in Ottawa, officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Fisheries and Oceans of Canada, and BC’s Chief Veterinary Officer reported “that in-depth test results showed no signs of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) in British Columbia salmon.”

“After Canada’s reputation has needlessly been put at risk over the past several week because of speculation and unfounded science, additional in-depth, conclusive tests, using proper and internationally recognized procedures, are now complete and we can confirm there has never been a confirmed case of ISA in BC salmon, wild or farmed,” said Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Keith Ashfield.

Ashfield said all the testing was done by Canada’s National Reference Laboratory, and none tested positive for ISA.

“This reinforces the regular testing conducted by federal and provincial officials; in recent years, over 5,000 fresh, properly collected and stored samples have been tested and there has never been a confirmed case of ISA in British Columbia salmon,” he added.

Ashfield said Canada’s current practices and procedures to protect wild and farm salmon from disease are “in place and working.” He said Canada is proud of its fishing industry for  “production of high-quality, safe and sustainable seafood.”

Over the weekend, Canadian media was rife with speculation about what the conflicting reports mean.   

One theory is that Canada’s big Atlantic fish farming industry has transported ISA to Pacific operations. Then there is the war of the laboratories. It pits Canada’s national lab versus the U of Prince Edward Island lab known for its ISA work.

Adding a bit of drama is also the fact that Molly Kibenge, the lead author of that draft manuscript in 2004, is now married to Dr. Fred Kibenge, who heads up the Prince Edward Island lab.  She is trying to get Fisheries and Oceans Canada to release the draft to her.

Meanwhile, south of the border, American politicians were reacting to the whole ISA scare before the government of Canada said everything was OK, again. Senators Maria Cantwell, D-WA; Lisa Murkowski, R-AK; and Mark Begich, D-AK called for independent, bi-lateral testing.

CFIA says Pacific salmon appear to be resistant to the disease.