Salmon sampling. Photo Anissa Reed.
On a sunny afternoon two weeks ago at a small creek near the Vedder River, we sampled eight salmon in under two hours. It was fair to say we were getting pretty good at it.
It wasn’t a very difficult protocol to follow – mostly common-sense rules put in place by biologists to avoid cross-contamination of fish – but only a few weeks before, I didn’t even know those rules existed. When we had received our training in fish sampling at UBC I had been overwhelmed, taking refuge in the thought that this workshop was really meant for other, more hands-on oriented people. But here I was, on the banks of this creek, taking fish samples myself and very much on top of things. It was empowering beyond words.
For the last fish of the day, I was the one doing the cutting while Nicole Mackay, my designated sampling buddy for over half-a-dozen trips now, was taking the notes and pictures. I disinfected my hands, put on a new set of surgical gloves, checked that the cutting board and instruments had been thoroughly disinfected. I then picked up the animal lying on the gravel (a chum salmon), took a few steps to a spot where no fish had been sampled, and went to work.
“Male. Spawning colors. Both eyes. Fresh”, I said as Nicole wrote the words on her clipboard. I measured the animal, weighed it, announced the numbers then moved out of the way as Nicole placed an ID tag on the fish and took a picture. I looked into the gills on each side of the fish and said: “Pale. White fungus”. I heard the click of Nicole’s camera in my ear as she took pictures of the gills. I took the knife and cut the fish’s belly open. “Spawned”, I said. Nicole placed the tag on again and took a picture of the animal’s insides. With my gloves now covered in blood, I detached the spleen, liver, gallbladder and heart, along with a piece of the gills and placed them all on the board in front of me. I then cut the kidney open – a really weird organ in a fish, attached like a thin strip of black tape along the animal’s backbone. As each organ came out, we assessed its condition. Nicole placed the tag on the board and took a picture of the organs.
That salmon, like most others sampled on that day, looked in good shape apart from its gills. Every single fish we inspected in that particular creek on the Vedder River system near Cultus Lake, BC, had this strange white fungus accumulating in the gills, like a distinct signature that something was off in that otherwise healthy run. What did it mean? We didn’t know, and thankfully, it wasn’t our job to reach any conclusions about it, just to gather some good samples.
Nicole prepared two vials containing some RNALater solution, a storage agent meant to preserve the samples for several weeks until they can be analyzed, while I popped a scalpel and pair of tweezers out of their sterile packages to cut small pieces of the animal’s heart and gills. After the vials had been safely sealed with their samples inside, I tossed the rest of the heart and gills into a ziplock which Nicole marked and put on ice. That was it, we were done.
The creek lying at our feet was alive with salmon. There were hundreds of them both live and dead in this tiny, shallow, marvelously beautiful and secluded space, only a stone throw from the main road yet almost totally invisible to the casual driver. I had gone through so many heartbreaks this year, staring aimlessly at salmon-deprived rivers, that I knew the exact value of what I was looking at. A creek with spawning salmon. The hope of a renewal. I stood there for a few minutes before heading back to the car, breathing in the energy, storing it for future battles. We had our samples for that particular run. Mission accomplished.
Over the past few months, members of the public have answered Dr. Alexandra Morton’s call to take the matter of salmon disease in their own hands. They have responded to DFO’s shocking and criminal negligence by going out and taking fish samples themselves. With the stunning results that we know: it has been dubbed ‘salmongate’.
Even though DFO and the Province had been dismissing for years the possibility that ISA could appear in BC, members of the public found evidence of that deadly virus almost immediately, as soon as they started looking for it. They found it in very different locations and in almost every species of Pacific wild salmon. The signs of a widespread pandemic have emerged very quickly, forcing government to engage in a dangerous – and, we now know, self-defeating – enterprise of denial. Recently, the lid finally came off when it was leaked that DFO had actually known for a fact about the presence of ISA in wild salmon for at least a decade, but had opted to cover it up.
So much so, that Justice Bruce Cohen had no choice but reopen for three days his inquiry in the decline of the 2009 Fraser sockeye salmon, for fear of losing his good name and reputation if he didn’t.
Last week, a few days before the Commission was to briefly reopen its doors, Alex Morton sent a very kind email to some members of her fish sampling crew. “I have never heard a single complaint from any of you about the cold and wet, you don't expect anything back you are totally dedicated to the fish and support each other”, she wrote, emphasizing the importance of the historic moment that we were living. “This set of hearings is because of us” she commented, “the work all of you have been doing has forced the commission and it has inspired the scientists to be bold.” And then, she prophesized the following: “we will be taking the door of secrecy off its hinges next week”.
And tonight, after an extraordinary first day at the Cohen Commission, this prophecy has been fully realized. As Drs. Kristi Miller and Fred Kibenge took turns all day to blow the whistle and detonate bombshell after bombshell inside Cohen’s courtroom – truly shocking revelations! which will require a separate blog – , scientists have indeed been bold, and the door of secrecy has indeed come off its hinges. What was done today cannot be undone. No person in their right mind can ever deny again the existence of ISA in BC – as government has done so recklessly and unwisely for the past few weeks – without drowning in their own ridicule. Some scientists, in particular, such as Dr. Gary Marty from the province of BC, will have to face some very hard questions in coming days and weeks.
The salmon-industrial complex is now fighting for its life and so we should expect it to strike back at us pretty hard with all that it has. But whatever comes our way next, we must never forget that WE, THE PEOPLE have made this historic day happen.
We reopened those Cohen proceedings ourselves with no outside help, by going out into the wilderness on our own initiative and with our own limited means, by taking samples of wild salmon, and by finding the ISA virus inside of them. We did that as DFO and the Province of BC were sitting on their hands and laughing at us for being a bunch of amateur hippies. Today they are laughing no more, instead they are on the run.
I am so immensely proud to have taken part (even so modestly) in this momentous effort. This sampling campaign represents direct action at its best. This is truly our finest hour.