Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Salmon-industrial complex in damage control

Justice Bruce Cohen. Ready when you are with that disease data, buddy!

The final chapter of Justice Cohen's inquiry in the 2009 sockeye collapse opened yesterday in Vancouver. Dedicated to the critical issues of salmon disease and aquaculture, this final set of hearings will take place over the next two weeks. It represents a major deal for the people in power. At stake is nothing less than the perpetuation of the cozy relationship which unites the “three amigos” of the salmon-industrial complex: the fish farm industry, the government, and the scientific establishment.

Back in November 2010, in his infinite wisdom Justice Cohen ordered the release of disease data collected over ten years in BC's fish farms. The industry has remitted the data as ordered by the judge, but it has also obtained that it be embargoed. Those who gained access to the data had to sign an undertaking not to disclose any of it until Cohen said so. According to a persistent rumor, that data is godawful damning: it will show that BC's salmon stocks have been hit by a massive viral outbreak for many years and that the industry, government, and perhaps even high-ranking scientists knew about it for all this time but decided to keep it a secret.

The public's patience, unlike Cohen's wisdom, is not infinite. Yesterday at the Commission, I heard some wonder aloud why the disease data had not been released yet, as Cohen had hinted it would be by now. The Commission's usually deserted public gallery was almost full, a pleasant and unusual sight which conveyed a clear message that people were now awaiting some concrete answers.

Those in power, of course, know that they have to respond to the public's expectations, and in particular that this bad-for-business disease data must be made available sooner rather than later, if only to avoid a rogue and uncontrolled wikileaks-style release of the entire dataset. But how to avoid a public backlash? What is the best strategy to soften the blow of such terrible and incriminating data, if any of this persistent rumor happens to be true?

Yesterday at the Commission, the establishment laid its cards on the table. Before even releasing any data and knowing that such release is ultimately unavoidable, it preemptively deployed an elaborate damage-control strategy hinging on a simple yet effective message: Yes BC's salmon stocks have known a viral outbreak for many years, but so what? This strategy has been carefully planned and thoroughly rehearsed, as the tightly choreographed exchanges between counsels and witnesses revealed.

The first witness, Dr. Michael Kent (Professor, Microbiology & Biomedical Sciences, Oregon State University) started the day by stating right off the bat that it is very hard to study diseases in wild salmon stocks and that such diseases have consequently been understudied. He added: Yes there are pathogens in BC's wild salmon but I don't see a smoking gun, we don't have hard evidence of a pathogen affecting wild salmon.

Dr. Stewart Johnson (Head, Aquatic Animal Health, DFO) concurred with his fellow witness: there is an absence of any hard evidence of a correlation between pathogens and salmon decline. The bottom line is we can't predict that link between the presence of pathogens in the water, and the number of fry that will come out of an adult spawner. And there is also a great variability from year to year, he added for good measure.

And with that, the tone was set for the day. The same message came out of the four witnesses again and again, a message expertly multiplied and amplified by the capable counsels representing the Commission and government. That message was: we have viruses, we have high salmon mortality, but we don't have a clear link from one to the other.

The name of the game was to cultivate uncertainty, and the counsel for Canada was particularly adept at bringing out just that. "In a paper, he asked the panel of witnesses, you caution that results from different studies are difficult to compare, different methodological approaches and different species in regards to their specific susceptibility to infection. You have to be careful about how you take results from different studies. Is that right?"

Panel of leading experts [chorus]: Right!

Later, the counsel for Canada asked: “What I'm really getting at here is that when you have concurrent infections, in order to understand what are the contributing factors – if any – of the given pathogen, it's usually complex, because of the given interrelated concurrent nature of the affections that are at play. Is that correct? Do the members of the panel agree with that?”

Panel of leading experts [chorus]: We agree with that!

Counsel for Canada: “What I am hearing in this is that there is considerable uncertainty around this salmon anemia disease and no one is able to tie it to any disease so far.”

Panel of leading experts [chorus]: Thou hearst well!

Dr. Michael Kent felt obliged to qualify this last response by adding: Anemia can be caused by more than one agent, such as a parasite in addition to a virus. The virus is probably a cause but we cannot rule out other causes. Retrovirus are very common in animals, many of them are endogenous. So yes we did find a virus in our studies, but definitively was that the cause of the disease? We cannot say. 

I call them here the “panel of leading experts” because that is precisely what the counsel for Canada called them on record. Counsel for Canada: “Is it fair to say that we have in you leading experts in your fields? Come on, don't be modest!” Panel of leading experts [displaying signs of modesty]: Well hmm if you say so okay then!

All counsels officiating yesterday did not show the same level of talent as their friend representing Canada. For some reason, the Province of BC decided to send out a rookie of a lawyer who immediately struck the wrong chord with the panel of 'leading experts'. She tried to obtain from the scientists something they would not give her: an actual denial of any linkage between the virus and the salmon. Fatal mistake. The fundamental principle guiding the entire day's proceedings (as the counsel for Canada had so masterfully understood) was uncertainty, not denial.

Counsel for BC: “Dr. Kent, have you concluded that no specific pathogen is a major cause to the decline of the Fraser sockeye?”

“Dr. Kent: No. I have concluded that we cannot identify any specific pathogen to be the cause of the demise of the Fraser sockeye. I know this may seem as splitting hairs but I am not saying we have excluded the possibility that a single pathogen has caused the demise of the sockeye.” 

The panel of scientists was telling the young counsel from BC (albeit in much more polite words than that) "don't push your luck, lady!" Sensing the danger, and perhaps getting a little worried about the looming cross-examination due to take place on the following day, the scientists were sticking to the script: there is no certainty one way or the other in regards to viruses and salmon.

One of the problems encountered by the panel and counsels in promoting this principle of uncertainty was the groundbreaking research conducted by Dr. Kristi Miller at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Her team's work established such linkage between viral infection and the decline of the salmon, and it has been recently saluted by the international scientific community through a publication in the journal Science. Meanwhile at home, Miller has been subjected to what can only be qualified as censorship and muzzling by her employer the DFO. Yesterday, some significant time was set aside to debunk Kristi Miller's research in no uncertain terms:

Commission counsel: Could you comment on Dr. Miller's work?

Dr. Christine MacWilliams (Fish Health Veterinarian – Salmonid Enhancement Program, DFO) : My interpretation of Kristi Miller's research based on the paper that I read is that some of the interpretations and assumptions being made were perhaps speculative or overreached. (Unfortunately, Christine MacWilliams did not explain the specific grounds on which she dismissed Kristi Miller's research, so we're going to have to take her word for it.)

The amount of ammunition that yesterday's scientific panel handed over to the fish farm industry is staggering. All the industry will need to say next week when called to witness is, tobacco industry or Exxon-style: yes our farms are heavily diseased but hey! the science is not in, the correlation between pathogens and salmon decline is not established as per our panel of 'leading experts', and we need another 10 years of science at least to establish that. But don't worry! We'll make sure that this research does happen and we'll take care of the scientists' bills.

In that cozy threesome relationship I referred to earlier between industry, government, and scientific establishment, one may ask: what's in it for the scientists? Why would they line up with the industry and politicians rather than defend, say, the principle of objective scientific truth? In a previous blog, I argued that scientists are not necessarily corrupt on an individual level, that actually most of them are fairly honest people. Rather, it's the research funding system itself which is corrupted to the bone, having been handed over to the the very industry which science is supposed to help watch over.

Dr. Stewart Johnson gave a spectacular illustration of that reality yesterday while testifying at the Cohen Commission. The strange thing is that he did not even realize he did! Describing a three-year research project which involved the study of migration patterns of Fraser sockeye from their spawning lake to the Strait of Georgia, he referred to the project's three-year funding and added almost in passing: "We received some support for this research from Marine Harvest". The fact that Mr. Johnson does not even perceive the existence of a conflict of interest here shows how deeply the scientific culture and code of ethics has been compromised by corporate funding.

As one of my fellow activists wrote in a live Facebook post during the Commission hearings: “If you leave it to the tobacco industry to detect cancer in smokers you'll get the same answer than when you leave it to fish farm apologists to find what's killing the sockeye.”


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