A U.S. fisheries scientist said he briefed at least one senator and several colleagues on an unpublished Canadian research paper that found a potentially devastating salmon virus existed off British Columbia's coast as early as 2002.

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A one-year-old sockeye salmon peers through the glass of a lab beaker. (Darin Oswald/Associated Press)

The paper obtained by The Canadian Press surveyed chum, coho, pink and sockeye salmon from the west coast of Vancouver Island, Southeast Alaska, and the Bering Sea between August 2002 and April 2003.

The paper was authored by scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island and concluded an asymptomatic form of infectious salmon anaemia was occurring in some wild-salmon species in the north Pacific.

The presence of so-called ISA is hugely controversial because Fisheries officials have said there is no clear evidence that it exists in wild B.C. salmon stocks.

The virus is known to be devastating to farmed Atlantic salmon and opponents of the fish farm industry have suggested farmed fish could spread it to wild stocks, with catastrophic results.

The issue of the virus is considered so sensitive that a judge holding a federal inquiry into the collapse of the Fraser River salmon run in 2009 — the Cohen Commission — has designated two extra days in December to hear submissions on the matter.

Washington scientist alarmed

James Winton, a fish-health specialist working for the United States Geological Survey in Seattle, Washington, said the DFO draft paper ought to be pushed into the realm of scientific scrutiny.

"I think this paper, you know, is admittedly an early draft and was probably not intended for much distribution at his stage," Winton said.

"However, the paper to me stands the test of science, and I think if it were polished up it should be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal and let the reviewers, you know, have at it."

Winton said he'd like to see researchers try to reproduce the work using the same methods, and said he suspects scientists will be able to find similar results.

But federal fisheries officials in Canada aren't so eager and are dismissing the report's conclusions.

In an emailed statement, Fisheries officials said the tests used by Molly Kibenge, one of the report's authors, are highly sensitive and often result in false positives.

"Appropriate followup was done on Dr. Kibenge's work using more thorough testing procedures and, based on the best science available, it was concluded that her results had produced a false positive and there was no presence of ISA in her samples," stated the officials.

Authors at odds

So divisive are the paper's conclusions and methodologies that even three of its four authors — Molly Kibenge, Frederick Kibenge and Simon Jones — disagree on whether or not it should be published.

In a Nov. 4 email obtained by The Canadian Press, Molly Kibenge asked Jones for permission to publish the report in one of two academic journals.

Jones declined, stating federal fisheries officials disagreed with her findings and an independent lab was not able to reproduce her results on more than one occasion.

"In my opinion, it will be very important to better understand the disagreement in laboratory results and to better test the hypothesis of 'Asymptomatic ISAV' before moving towards publication," wrote Jones.

Frederick Kibenge then responded to Jones, writing the data would be sent to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

"This manuscript, which describes a targeted surveillance with significant prevalence rates of suspected infection in specific Pacific salmon species, accompanied by virus sequence data, may assist the CFIA," he wrote.

Controversial findings

Winton's briefing to the senator, scientists and U.S. reporters comes more than a month after scientists tangled over the disputed findings in two other suspected cases of ISA.

In October, Simon Fraser University professor Rick Routledge announced the virus had been found in two of 48 sockeye smolts from B.C.'s Central Coast.

But just weeks later, the CFIA dismissed those findings after conducting its own tests and verifying its results at an independent Norwegian lab.

According to the CFIA website, the virus can kill up to 90 per cent of infected fish, but some strains do not cause high mortality rates.

A European strain of the virus was linked to an outbreak on Chilean fish farms that devastated the industry a few years ago. 

Winton said while he finds the data compelling and the findings credible, questions still remain on links to the aquaculture industry and how long the virus may have been present in north Pacific waters.

"I don't believe that this paper links to the aquaculture industry nor does it exonerate the aquaculture industry," he said, adding that scientists also don't know what kind of impact the virus may have on wild stocks.

"It is very consistent with what we know about ISAV in other parts of the world and that is that it's present in a marine reservoir of species and that when given a chance, let's say with net-pen Atlantic salmon, if it can get a foothold it can begin to evolve and adapt to a more virulent and a more host-specific form."

The Cohen Commission will reconvene Dec. 15 and Dec. 16 to hear evidence on the virus.