Secrecy shackles science

The mysterious fate of the once-bountiful wild sockeye salmon spawning runs up B.C.’s Fraser River may finally have been solved.

The mysterious fate of the once-bountiful wild sockeye salmon spawning runs up B.C.’s Fraser River may finally have been solved.

A $6-million salmon genetics study, headed by renowned scientist Kristi Miller for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has reportedly found something extremely significant.

Something has killed upwards of 50 per cent of the spawning sockeye in recent years.

This threat against of one of nature’s most intriguing wild fish populations — which is driven by instinct to challenge a roaring, unforgiving river to spawn — has captivated worldwide attention. More than 7,400 journalists around the world put in requests to interview Miller after her astonishing findings were published in January in the American-based Science magazine.

But that’s as far as it got. The Stephen Harper government has imposed a gag order on the study and Miller.

This is blatant censorship, and hardly helpful in the campaign to restore salmon numbers.

Members of the science community accuse the federal government of eroding its own code of transparency.

The sockeye salmon study is a classic example. For six of the past 10 years, including three consecutive years starting in 2007, millions of spawning sockeye disappeared from the Fraser River. In 1999, 15 million fish vanished between the monitoring station in Mission, B.C., and their spawning grounds ranging from between 350 to 1,500 km away.

“Where did the damn fish go?” asked one West Coast newspaper.

Miller’s study could shed some light. She said her censored study “reflects only a fraction of what we know.”

Observers say the gag order cannot be defended and proves how the government is undermining its scientists. “There is no question in my mind it’s muzzling,” said Jeffery Hutchings, a senior fisheries scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “When the lead author of a paper in Science is not permitted to speak about her work, that is suppression. There is simply no ifs, ands or buts about that.”

Federal scientists are frequently told to shut up. Yet their studies, financed by Canadians, are often of significant public interest.

These experts were once free to discuss their findings. Now they must travel through a federal bureaucratic maze of “media lines” approved only by communication officers, strategists and ministerial staff. Reporters are asked to submit questions in advance, then a decision is made if researchers can give interviews. Environment Canada has gone so far as to record interviews that scientists have been approved to give.

Transparency and open communication are essential to science, Hutchings said. Ottawa’s excessive control over communication is “poisoning the science environment within government.”

Such censorship cultivates suspicions that the government is bowing to outside pressure.

The Miller study says in an abstract published in Science that the spawning salmon may suffer from a viral infection that attacks their gills.

Speculation and evidence suggests domestic fish farms along the West Coast are the source.

A $25-million federal inquiry is looking into the salmon crisis, headed by B.C. Supreme Court Judge Bruce Cohen.

But some key experts who were to present findings were forced to sign legal undertaking before appearing at the commission.

Biologist and anti-fish-farm activist Alexandra Morton wants her legal undertaking removed before appearing at the commission. She says there are too many fishy secrets kept under wraps in documents filed to the commission.

So far, 395,000 documents are on file, and none can be made public until the commission says so, including a letter of concern Morton wrote to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency about an infectious salmon virus.

Sources say some records indicate that “infectious salmon anaemia” was found in a West Coast salmon farm. It’s been suggested the same virus, or a mutated version, has been detected in wild stocks.

“The level of secrecy (within the commission) is ramping up and, by not reporting things that are reportable by law, we have a problem,” said Morton.

“It’s a terrible situation. I am at my wits end.”

Secrecy is not going to solve the problems with West Coast salmon. The sooner all the evidence is delivered in public forums, the sooner we can get to the root of this environmental disaster.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.