Federal officials in charge of fish disease testing are denying they deliberately set out to quash claims that a dangerous salmon virus was detected this fall in wild Pacific stocks.
The Cohen Commission into the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon heard new evidence Friday that critics say suggests federal agencies were willing to suppress the truth about risks to salmon to protect industry and trade.
One email entered in evidence came from a B.C. manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which swiftly investigated alleged findings of Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA) virus and then refuted those reports.
Joseph Beres wrote to CFIA colleagues Nov. 9 to praise their "very successful performance" in briefing the media on their findings refuting the independent tests.
"It is clear that we are turning the PR tide to our favour," Beres said in the email. "One battle is won, now we have to nail the surveillance piece, and we will win the war also."
Dr. Kim Klotins, the acting national manager of disease control contingency planning at the CFIA, said staff can get "a little bit exuberant" in internal emails.
"I really can't speak to what he was thinking," she said under cross-examination.
"My read is there is not a particular viewpoint that we're following," Klotins told the commission. "The point of surveillance is to find out if if is there or is not there."
Dr. Stephen Stephen, the director of DFO's Biotechnology and Aquatic Animal Health Sciences Branch, also rejected suggestions federal employees pre-judged this fall's ISA investigation.
"We're not about disproving anything," he said. "We're about proving the facts."
He and other federal panelists defended CFIA's recent determination that re-testing failed to confirm any presence of ISA in several wild salmon collected separately by SFU professor Rick Routledge and independent biologist Alexandra Morton.
Stephen said the need for accuracy in announcing disease findings is critical, because of potential major impacts to international and domestic trade, as well as fishermen, fish farmers and First Nations.
Some of the scientists who conducted the lab tests for Routledge and Morton that delivered the initial positive results testified they felt attacked or intimidated by CFIA during the follow-up investigation.
Ottawa was mainly interested in finding faults with their methodology, they said.
CFIA witnesses said they sought to determine if the samples had been cross-contaminated with the virus in the lab or if other handling procedures led to an erroneous result.
DFO researcher Kristi Miller also told the inquiry in its final days that the ISA virus or something very similar may have been present in wild B.C. salmon for up to 25 years.
The CFIA has promised systematic salmon sampling to test for ISA in B.C. waters starting next year.
The latest testimony came in the final days of the inquiry, which wrapped up hearings Dec. 19. A final report and recommendations are due by next June.
Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said he believes ISA is present in B.C. on the basis of the initial tests, although he said it's unclear what threat, if any, the virus – which has ravaged farmed salmon elsewhere in the world – actually poses to wild salmon.
"The bigger question is what is government doing to protect our interests as opposed to protecting very narrow interests like salmon farming and international," Orr said in an interview.
He said the latest email makes it hard to trust the federal agencies.
"Salmon is a public resource," Orr said. "We've seen all kinds of evidence throughout Cohen that government information control is really restricting independent science within DFO. Science is completely intertwined with politics."