A highly infectious virus found in wild salmon on B.C.'s central coast could have a devastating impact on the province's wild salmon and herring, according to some experts.

Simon Fraser University Prof. Rick Routledge discovered the disease known as infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, in two of 48 sockeye smolts collected. The fish were caught 100 kilometres from the nearest fish farm, and had never been out to sea. 

The infection was diagnosed by Dr. Fred Kibenge, an employee at the Atlantic Veterinary College in P.E.I., who notified the CFIA.

Routledge, who's doing a long-term study on the collapse of Rivers Inlet sockeye, says the exotic disease could have a devastating impact on wild salmon in B.C.

He says the possible impact of the virus can't be taken lightly and there must be an immediate response to assess the extent of the outbreak.

"First thing that I think we should do is start looking for the source," said Routledge.  

Never detected before on West Coast

Infectious salmon anemia, or ISA has never been found in salmon off B.C.'s coast — not in the Atlantic species that are raised in ocean pens, and never in B.C.'s indigenous wild salmon.

But Alexandra Morton, a biologist and longtime critic of salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago, says the European strain of the virus could only have come from the farmed Atlantic salmon in the area.

"You'd kind of have to believe in fairy tales that it didn't come here. These same companies brought it to Chile — granted it was by accident — but they did it and they wiped 70 per cent of their industry out, in Chile," said Morton.

A statement issued by the B.C. Salmon Farmers said the CFIA has yet to confirm the finding, but the disease would not likely affect wild Pacific salmon stocks like it affects Atlantic salmon, which are raised on West Coast salmon farms.

"Farm-raised Atlantic salmon, unlike their Pacific cousins, are susceptible to ISA, so this is a concern for our operations, but much less likely to be an issue for the different Pacific species," said Stewart Hawthorn, managing director for Grieg Seafood in a statement released on Monday.

"If these results are valid, this could be a threat to our business and the communities that rely on our productive industry."

With files from The Canadian Press