British Columbia

DFO scientist says Privy Council silenced her

A federal fisheries scientist says she believes an order stopping her from talking about her research into the 2009 sockeye salmon collapse in B.C. came from one of the highest offices in Ottawa.

A fisheries scientist says she believes senior officials close to the prime minister prevented her from talking to the media about her research into the 2009 sockeye salmon collapse in B.C.

Kristi Miller told a federal inquiry Thursday that she learned about the gag order  only through the inquiry and believes officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were OK with her giving interviews about the publication of her article in the journal Science.

"I learned only through the inquiry process that the decision of not allowing me to speak to the press after the Science paper came out came out of the Privy Council Office and not from DFO," she said.

"I had permission to speak from the deputy minister and, I believe, the minister's office so what I was not aware as a scientist is at what level these decisions are made."

Miller testified she believes it would have been useful to speak to the media after the article's publication to let them know what scientists knew and didn't know and she found it frustrating to see the direction some news stories went.

No government denial

The federal government did not dispute Miller's suggestion that it was the Privy Council Office, which serves the prime minister, that refused to allow Miller to talk to media.

"Dr. Miller's testimony was thorough, extensive and speaks for itself," Dimitri Soudas, communications director at the Prime Minister's Office, said in an email to The Canadian Press.

"Her study and transcripts of her testimony is publicly available. . . The government will not interfere with Justice Cohen's work."

Miller testified senior officials had not prevented her from publishing work but stopped her from talking to the public because of the inquiry.

The inquiry heard Tuesday that Miller is working on trying to figure out whether the parvovirus is linked to the Fraser River sockeye collapse.

The virus has never before been found in fish and her work is considered groundbreaking. Tim Leadem, legal counsel for the Conservation Coalition, a group of seven different organizations, said Thursday he doesn't know why officials close to the prime minister would become involved.

"Do we know the reason why the PCO needs to get involved at this level of spinning what stories should be emanating from a scientific journal publication?" he asked.

"I think those questions should be put to the prime minister to find out why his hands and his reach of his office has to go down to this level."

Miller suggested one reason scientists were advised not to attend sockeye-salmon meetings which could be attended by members of the media.

She said researchers knew a disease may be present but they didn't know whether it was affecting farmed fish or other salmon species.

"I think the worry by the department was that if we bring out that there could be a disease issue in sockeye salmon without really understanding how far and widespread it might be. . . the worry would be that it would automatically be assumed to be associated with aquaculture and we really didn't even have any data at that time," she said.

Virus may be just one factor

Miller also clarified comments she made Wednesday.

Under cross-examination by Gregory McDade, lawyer for the Aquaculture Coalition which opposes fish farms, Miller said the parvovirus could be the "smoking gun"' when it comes to the decline of Fraser River sockeye in 2009.

"Actually, I had no intention of saying that in this hearing," she said. "I felt a little bit backed into the corner on that one."

She said the virus could be a major factor, but not the only one involved in the decline of sockeye salmon.

In later testimony, four fisheries experts told the inquiry that for the most part, there's no link between salmon farms and sockeye spawning returns.

Their individual reports relied on data, including some from the B.C. Salmon Farmers' Association and the provincial government, to conclude that between 2003 and 2010, salmon farms reported a significant decline in the number of high-risk diseases.

Brock Martland, a lawyer for the commission, asked two experts whether they would declare a finding of innocence if the findings involved the criminal trial of a person.

Lawrence Dill, whose research focuses on behavioural ecology and parasites and fish farms, said sockeye can be exposed to pathogens transferred through waste from salmon-farm processing plants or the environment.

"So I would not, at this point, be able to come down on the side of innocence," he said.