Monday, October 17, 2011

Manufactured disaster

The ISA virus. Photo: Fisheries Research Service

Sadly, we had it coming. It is now official. The European strain of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) has been reported today for the first time in Pacific wild salmon. It was found in sockeye caught on the central coast of British Columbia. Read the press release from Salmon Are Sacred, and the stories all over the media.

ISA is a deadly virus directly linked to fish farms. It has decimated salmon stocks in many countries since the 1980s such as Norway, Scotland, Chile. Entire ecosystems and coastal communities have been ecologically and economically devastated by this salmon equivalent of the Black Death. And now we learn we have it too.

With such a dangerous virus out in the open around the world for so many years, the question on everyone’s minds this morning was: how did we get to this? How did we allow this virus to even reach the shores of British Columbia? Surely by now, we know how to stop this thing, don’t we?

We actually do, and we have known for many years. Ban the import of Atlantic salmon hatchery eggs. In this age of total globalization, even farmed salmon eggs are no longer produced locally but rather thousands of miles away, usually in Europe. Those imported eggs are important, because scientists see them as the primary vector in the transmission of viruses such as ISA from one region of the world to the other.

Since the late 1980s, scientists in Canada and elsewhere have relentlessly alerted government against the risks of such egg imports. But Canada’s Department of Fish Farms chose instead to ignore those calls and adopted a policy of institutional recklessness to fulfill its mandate of serving industrial aquaculture. A report written by Dr. Alexandra Morton for the Cohen Commission before ISA was discovered in BC, and which was recently admitted as evidence in spite of furious objections on the part of government and industry lawyers, explains in detail how government has gambled with our wild salmon.

BC’s eggs, Morton explains, are shipped from a hatchery in Iceland called Stofnfiskur. The problem is that this particular hatchery does not meet the health safety standards of Canadian law. So technically, they couldn’t be imported. Don’t let that technicality stop the Department of Fish Farms, though! In a briefing dated 2004, DFF’s Director for the Pacific Region Laura Richards articulated the following key arguments in an effort to allow those eggs into Canada in spite of their non-compliance:

  • “Two BC salmon farming companies wish to import Atlantic salmon eggs from Stofnfiskur, an Icelandic company which is not certified under the Canadian Fish Health Protection Regulations”
  • “Failure to provide permission for egg importation may trigger a trade challenge under the World Trade Organization …” 
  • “Additionally, DFO could also be viewed as causing a competitive disadvantage of the aquaculture industry by denying them access to alternate strains”
Following this briefing, Alexandra Morton wrote to Justice Cohen in her report, “Laura Richards was successful in her petition to allow eggs from a hatchery that does not meet Canada’s Fish Health Protection Regulations.” By opening that regulatory backdoor for the industry, Dr. Richards may have allowed the ISA virus to enter British Columbia.

In that same report, Dr. Morton also showed that the ISA virus may have been present in BC for several years but that scientists on government payroll have chosen not to acknowledge that possibility. Dr Gary Marty, a lead veterinarian with the Province of BC, reported cases of classic lesions associated with ISA 1,100 times since 2006. Yet he never registered any of those repeated diagnoses – not a single time – as being the ISA virus itself, even though the disease was very well known worldwide and was routinely associated with fish farm operations similar to those found in British Columbia, and even though the symptoms matched the disease perfectly.

The problem in this matter is not so much Dr. Marty’s personal decision not to recognize those thousand diagnoses as being ISA. Rather, as Alex Morton noted in her report to Cohen, the problem is that “Dr. Marty is the only government person we know of who is doing these examinations.” Placed by his employer, the government of BC, in a position of complete monopoly over the diagnosis of ISA, Dr. Marty can literally say whatever takes his fancy about those symptoms. For that matter, he could have said that those fish died of old age. No other scientist is in a position to either confirm or challenge his conclusions, not having access to the same information as he does. And so, Marty’s statement that those classic symptoms of ISA are not actually ISA can never be scientifically disproved. It is, as Morton wrote to Cohen, a statement that “could be repeated indefinitely”.

And this is how a government maintains the status quo, preserves a position of business as usual no matter what may be happening in the real world. By manufacturing self-supporting scientific statements which cannot be challenged, the charade can be, in effect, maintained and repeated indefinitely. Of course, this is no longer called science, but dogma. And yes, it may occasionally find itself contradicted by real things that happen in the real world – such as herrings bleeding from their fins, Harrison sockeye dying by the hundreds of thousands without spawning, or the emergence of freakish bright-yellow pink salmon all over the Fraser River. But those are merely PR matters that need to be managed, a small price to pay for the perpetuation of the cozy relationship between government, industry, and the scientific establishment within the salmon-industrial complex.

How does the public fight back? As so many times before, Alexandra Morton is showing the way, and it’s actually simpler than it sounds. She is breaking the monopoly of knowledge that government is working so hard to maintain. She has taken the matter of salmon testing and diagnosis in her own hands. Earlier this month, she went in the field twice to test the salmon – and came back with evidence of severe hepatitis and pre-spawn mortality in the Fraser salmon. She struck a partnership with SFU professor Rick Routledge to send central coast sockeye for testing – and came back with the ISA virus. She has fearlessly denounced the ruthless policy of financial starvation and bureaucratic harassment inflicted by the Department of Fish Farms on one of her most talented scientists, Dr. Kristi Miller – and I will wage my money that Alex will succeed there too in breaking the knowledge impasse. Miller will eventually get her money and her research will resume and provide us with righteous answers.

Fighting back will require an array of initiatives. In this asymmetrical struggle against a bloated and hyper-powerful bureaucracy, our strategy is to initiate shocks which grow over time by taking a life of their own. One such initiative is called the “Kristi Miller Fund”. Back in September, Dr. Miller testified at the Cohen Commission that her research funding for the sockeye salmon had been cut off. In particular, she had applied for a grant to test farmed salmon for the virus signature that she had identified. She was asking for $18,750 – a pittance in research terms – but her hierarchy said sorry, we don’t have the money at this time.

The Kristi Miller Fund
What a slap in the face. We who were sitting in the public gallery at the Cohen Commission on that day were fuming with rage. Then someone said: “So they don’t have that money, eh? Heck! (actually she used another word) Let’s just raise the money ourselves so Kristi Miller can do her testing.” The Kristi Miller Fund was born. To date, about $6,000 of the money has been raised. That’s about a third, not bad. I suspect we will get way beyond the required $18,000 without even breaking a sweat, as soon as this particular initiative will have taken a life of its own and grown beyond control. People have given anywhere between $10 and $1,000. What matters really is not how much each person gives but rather how many people end up contributing to this Fund, that’s the metric I’ll be most interested in.

The purpose of this initiative is not to bail out government with our own paycheques. Rather, it’s to turn this petty, shameful move to starve Miller’s work into a media and PR nightmare for the government. Initiate a shock that will grow on its own and blow up in the bureaucracy’s face. When we have the money, we’ll hold a press conference and put up a big stink about it, hand out to the media a story that they will want to tell. The plan is to force Miller’s hierarchy to miraculously “find” the money that she was denied. It’s really about saving government from its own stupidity, helping the Department of Fish Farms to start its long, painful march towards detox. So than one day, it can break away from its incestuous relationship with industry and be – once again! – the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

People have asked: what happens if the Department of Fish Farms refuses to take the money or if it suddenly finds money of its own to fund Miller? Where does the money go? Well, I think that answer is rather obvious. We will hand it over to Alexandra Morton, so she can do more testing and diagnosis independently of industry and government. That way, we will win on both counts. Miller will get her funding restored, and Morton will continue her heroic work to break the state monopoly over salmon knowledge.

Follow this link to pitch in your own two cents to the Kristi Miller Fund!


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