SEATTLE — Scientists in Washington state are working to improve testing of a deadly, contagious marine virus as a precaution, after the virus was detected in wild salmon for the first time on the West Coast.
Researchers with Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and elsewhere announced Monday they had found the influenza-like virus in two juvenile sockeye salmon collected from the province’s central coast. The virus, which doesn’t affect humans, has caused losses at fish farms in Chile and other areas, and could have devastating impacts on wild salmon in the region and other species that depend on them, the researchers said.
“This is potentially very big. It’s of big concern to us,” said John Kerwin, who supervises the fish health unit at the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Even though the virus was detected in salmon collected hundreds of miles away, at Rivers Inlet in British Columbia, the virus could pose a threat because “fish don’t have any boundaries in the ocean … and salmon species stray,” he said.
The state tested about 56,000 hatchery and wild fish last year and hasn’t found signs of the virus — infectious salmon anemia, Kerwin said. But Monday’s news sent Kerwin scrambling on Tuesday to work with other agencies to find ways to beef up current testing methods. If the virus is ever detected in Washington, the state would follow containment plans that could include killing fish, he said.
“It’s a disease emergency,” said James Winton, who directs the fish health section of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle.
Officials on both side of the border should increase surveillance and research to understand how broadly the virus is distributed, in what species, how fish are infected, among other questions, he said. “We don’t have enough information on what this strain will do today and what it will do in the future,” he said.
“We’re concerned. Should it be introduced, it might be able to adapt to Pacific salmon,” added Winton, who is not connected to the British Columbia study.
The virus was found in two of 48 juvenile sockeye salmon collected as part of a long-term study of sockeye salmon led by Simon Fraser University professor Rick Routledge. “It is certainly possible that this disease may be benign for Pacific salmon, but I still don’t rest easy because it was initially benign for Atlantic salmon and it mutated,” he said Tuesday.
Researchers said Fred Kibenge of the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island, confirmed the presence of the virus in two fish and noted it was a European strain of the virus.
Routledge and biologist and wild-salmon activist Alexandra Morton suggested Monday that the source of the virus is Atlantic salmon farms in British Columbia, which has imported millions of salmon eggs since 1986.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was informed of the suspect case over the weekend and will run its own tests and analysis at a federal laboratory in New Brunswick, said Dr. Cornelius Kiley, a veterinarian with the agency. It may be weeks before that’s complete, he said Tuesday.
“It’s very important to ensure that the test was carried out properly and done under the proper condition,” Kiley said. “If you can repeat it, then your level of confidence will increase.”
Morton on Monday called for the removal of Atlantic salmon from British Columbia salmon farms. And the Washington-based Wild Fish Conservancy on Tuesday called for a halt to more net pen salmon aquaculture on the West Coast. It also wanted widespread testing of wild and hatchery salmon and a halt to fish farms in British Columbia until those results are known.
But Kiley said, “We have no indication at this time that there’s any involvement with the aquaculture industry.”
In Washington state, Kerwin said one company raises Atlantic salmon in western Washington and has not detected the virus.
John Kaufman, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he wasn’t as concerned, partly because the virus seems to affect Atlantic salmon the most and Oregon does not raise Atlantic salmon off its coast.