What’s better than debunking Morton myths? Seeing a real salmon scientist get international recognition!

We were going to write about the contradictions, lies and half-truths which characterized activist Alexandra Morton’s hour-long radio love-in with Ian Jessop on CFAX yesterday.

But we didn’t really want to.

The official seal of the Pseudoscience Labelling Initiative, which may soon be required by law to preface any publication by Alexandra Morton.
The official seal of the Pseudoscience Labelling Initiative, which may soon be required by law to preface any publication by Alexandra Morton.

It’s just too painful to debunk the same points over and over again. We’ve already addressed them many times on this blog, particularly her claim that the ISA virus is in BC (even though she contradicted herself on the show by admitting her results were not confirmed).

We’ve also talked about another point she raised about Piscine Reovirus, which recent research shows has been in wild fish since at least the late 1970s. This physical evidence, of course, makes her claims based on computer modelling that it must have been introduced by salmon farms in the mid-2000s moot.

A great scientist’s career recognized

So we were thrilled to read today that one BC scientist, who has been a cornerstone of fisheries science and who has published hundreds of papers crucial to understanding wild salmon, was recognized by the prestigious International Council for Exploration of the Seas.

Carl Walters
Dr. Carl Walters

Yesterday, UBC’s Dr. Carl Walters was awarded ICES’ Prix D’Excellence, an award recognizing scientists who “have contributed to the sustained use and conservation of marine ecosystems through their research, scientific leadership and/or leadership in the objective application of science to policy. Innovation, teamwork, mentoring, and objective communication with the public exemplify the career of the recipient of this award.”

Congratulations to Carl on this well-deserved award! His work over the past decade has been crucial in helping us better understand wild salmon dynamics, as well as interactions between wild and farmed salmon.

As the press release from ICES states:

“Over his career, Dr. Walters has been the most innovative scientist working in marine ecosystems and fisheries management,” remarked ICES Awards Committee Chair Pierre Petitgas at the awards ceremony during the ASC opening session. “He has also been a well-known advocate for co-operation between scientists and fishermen and has promoted cooperative arrangements between governments and fishing industries to provide improved information for stock assessment and management via methods such as industry-based surveys.”

Here is the full press release from ICES.

 

Why does farmed salmon flesh sometimes go soft? Study offers new insights

Kudoa in Atlantic salmon fillet
Soft and separated flesh in a salmon fillet caused by Kudoa

When customers open a box of fresh, farmed salmon only to find the flesh has gone soft after being in storage for a few days, that’s a huge problem for both the customer and the seller.  No one wants that to happen.

Most of the fish produced in BC is premium quality.  But sometimes soft flesh problems arise.

BC salmon farmers have worked for years to prevent this from happening — after all, premium quality fish command premium quality prices.

Years of research have pinpointed one common culprit behind soft flesh: a fish parasite known as kudoa, which sometimes affects BC farmed salmon but has also affected wild-caught BC fish used in fish sticks and surimi for 40 years.

But sometimes soft flesh in farmed salmon happens without the presence of kudoa, and a 2014 study brings us closer to understanding why.

The study’s findings suggest that soft flesh is linked to how much glycogen (stored sugar) the fish has in its cells:

“We report for the first time an association between soft flesh of Atlantic salmon and massive intracellular glycogen accumulation coinciding with swollen and degenerated mitochondria, myocyte detachment and altered extracellular matrix protein distribution. The results are important for further understanding the etiology of soft salmon.”

The study authors caution that they are not sure if the accumulation of glycogen is a symptom or cause of soft flesh, but the new findings will definitely help researchers better understand what is happening with soft salmon flesh and get closer to finding a solution.

Risk assessment of Norwegian salmon farming offers some surprising points

Every year since 2011, the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research has published a risk assessment for ocean salmon farming in Norway.

The results, most recently published in July 2014, offer up some points that might surprise die-hard salmon farming critics.

The most concerning risks in Norway, according to the research, are:

  • Wild Atlantic salmon face a moderate to high risk for “genetic introgression” (cross-breeding) from escaped farmed Atlantic salmon.
  • About 27 of 109 farms investigated for sea lice infection indicate moderate to high risk of likelihood for passing wild salmon smolts, and 67 farms indicated moderate to high risk of mortality from sea lice for wild sea trout.

The interesting results are in what doesn’t appear to be a concern:

Despite “extensive release of virus in many areas,” screening of wild salmonids showed low to very low presence of the same viruses.

  • Only 2% of all farms displayed unacceptable levels of “organic loading” (fish poop and feed) below the farms; therefore the “risk of eutrophication and organic load beyond the production area of the farm is considered low.
  • It’s interesting that, in Norway at least, the two points that salmon farm critics seize on the most — viruses and fish poop — are of least concern.

It’s debatable how meaningful it would be to extrapolate these findings to BC, but they raise some interesting points. Here in BC, where we have strong populations of wild salmon, which are unable to interbreed with farmed Atlantic salmon, the issue of “genetic introgression” is moot.

More than a decade of sea lice research has also shown that sea lice from salmon farms are unlikely to have any measurable impact on wild salmon, as experts at the Cohen Commission agreed.

Also, as BC experts said, the risk to wild salmon from farm diseases might be possible, but is also probably low.

What would happen if GMO farmed salmon escaped in BC?

According to the results of recent research done in West Vancouver, the answer is “probably not much.”

But it depends.

There are a lot of factors that would come into play if genetically-modified salmon escaped and managed to invade BC river systems and it’s hard to anticipate them all. But DFO’s Centre for Aquatic Biotechnology Regulatory Research has been working since 2008 to learn about how genetically-modified salmon would perform in the wild, and around wild species of salmon.

The land-based facility grows coho that have been modified to grow quickly, and uses tanks constructed to simulate river and stream systems to do various experiments with the fish.

Non-modified fish on the left, and modified fish on the right. All of the fish are 12 months old.
Non-modified fish on the left, and modified fish on the right. All of the fish are 12 months old.

Researchers from the centre recently published their work in the Journal of Applied Ecology, and one of their major findings was that if genetically-modified coho salmon invade a freshwater system when they are young, they don’t pose any more threat to wild fish than any other fish in the system. However, if the fish are older, because they have been modified to grow quickly, they will be larger and can significantly reduce the survival and growth of the wild fish.

For the record, no one in the world is currently growing genetically-modified fish for human consumption.

Yet.

Salmon farm helping train the next generation of crime scene investigators

hammer
A fourth-year student demonstrates bloodstain pattern analysis with a hammer at the University of Windsor on March 21, 2014. From the Windsor Star, March 25, 2014.

It’s a small connection, but a fascinating one.

Blood from a Chinook salmon farm off Quadra Island is being used in the world-class Forensic Sciences program at the University of Windsor, Ontario.

The salmon blood is used to create blood stains on a T-shirt, and the second-year students are challenged to solve a “whodunnit.”

We use fish blood to create realistic blood stains on clothing and challenge the students to use DNA analyses to clear or implicate suspects.Safety concerns are minimized through the use of fish blood, while maximizing both realism and the likelihood of student success due to fishes’ nucleated red blood cells.

The goal in designing this laboratory exercise was to create a feasible protocol for large (over 300 students) second year university courses.

During two 3 hour laboratory sessions, students learn and apply clean/sterile technique, DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction, restriction fragment length polymorphisms, and agarose gel electrophoresis. The students also learn to interpret the resulting gel bands in terms of inclusive or exclusive evidence.

Students have consistently ranked this lab as their favorite of five taken as part of a second year Genetics course.

Sounds like fun, and makes us wanna go back to school.

Here’s a published paper about the salmon blood experiment, and how it worked out.

‘Novel’ virus not so novel, after presence found in steelhead samples from 1977

A “new” virus found in BC farmed and wild salmon isn’t so new after all.

Piscine Reovirus (PRV) has been around since at least 1977, according to a new peer-reviewed paper soon to be published in the Journal of Fish Diseases, with Dr. Gary Marty as lead author.

The study tested 363 preserved samples of fish from 1974-2008, and 916 fresh-frozen samples from 2013.

None of the fish showed signs of Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI), which some research done in Europe suggests may be linked to PRV.

In the past several years, PRV has been found in wild and farmed BC salmon. Last year, activist Alexandra Morton used this to launch a lawsuit against Marine Harvest Canada, alleging that the company put “diseased fish” into the ocean.

She quickly followed up the lawsuit by co-authoring a study on PRV and HSMI which suggests the version of the virus in BC diverged from the Norwegian strain in 2007, implying, of course, that somehow salmon farms in BC introduced the virus from Norway.

The study was unfortunately rather poor. Its biggest weakness is the small sample size.

  1. It relies on only 14 samples of fish taken in BC.
  2. It relies on only 10 samples of Atlantic salmon.
  3. All of the samples were taken in 2012.
  4. All of the conclusions about virus divergence are based on computer modelling.

In this study’s conclusion, it states that “Our work suggests PRV entered both Chile and western Canada recently.”

This year’s Marty study shows last year’s PRV study is wrong.

KeplerIn science, if you make a prediction about how something should work, and that prediction fails, your hypothesis was wrong and you start over.

The predictions made by the study co-authored by Morton are wrong, in light of the new Marty study.

Salmon farms did not introduce PRV to BC; it’s been here for decades and since before the first salmon farm was built, and maybe even longer.

One more tidbit: Marty’s study also showed that archived samples of Alaskan salmon carried PRV, too.

Lazy reporting, mean girls and plankton blooms

Linda Aylesworth of Global News took activist Alexandra Morton’s bait and ran a segment on TV about her recent attack on Grieg Seafood.

Unfortunately, Aylesworth didn’t make any effort to fact-check the claims of either Morton or the Grieg Seafood managing director quoted in the story.

“It’s a classic ‘he said, she said’ story,” Aylesworth states in the segment.

That’s a cheap cop-out and reinforces the cliche of the big company hiding something while the lone, plucky activist tries to uncover the truth. It’s also a lazy out for journalists who claim they are just presenting “both sides of the story” and letting viewers “make up their own minds.”

Ah, Lois Lane and classic investigative journalism, we miss you.
Ah, Lois Lane and classic investigative journalism, we miss you.

We don’t think that’s good enough, when a topic is being presented in a way that implies one party is lying, and that our precious wild salmon are threatened. The journalist needs to do better.

Why didn’t Aylesworth contact a real ocean biologist, say, someone at UBC or SFU, to ask for more information about plankton blooms so she can actually educate, instead of titillate, her viewers? Why didn’t she contact DFO, which regulates salmon farms, for information about the mass mortality incident, to fact-check the claims made by both interviewees? Why didn’t she contact CFIA, which regulates farmed animal health, and must be informed if any diseases of concern are found in a salmon farm?

No, what we got here is more of the same tired narrative Morton has been promoting for decades and Global TV thoughtlessly regurgitated it without question, and without any attempt to scratch the surface.

 Mean girl rabble-rousing

Some interesting information has trickled back to us about Morton’s activities while filming this farm in Nootka Sound.

Apparently, she and her three friends riled up the tourists who were there to fish, inspiring many of them to boat out to the farm and abuse the farmers over the VHF radio.

Afterwards, Morton got on the radio and tried to play “good cop” by telling the farmers that she’s got nothing against them, that they are just doing their jobs. As she wrote on her blog, “Thank you to the patience of the salmon farming crew at Concepcion Point. This must have been as stressful on you as it was on us.”

How thoughtful. She works to rile up the tourists against them, starts rumours in the media that imply they are thoughtless stooges killing wild salmon and hiding disease, and then she tries to play nice.

Like  the popular girl in high school spreading rumours about you, then pretending to be nice to you the next day.

All about plankton blooms

Plankton blooms are natural in BC and a common occurrence at salmon farms. A few years ago, this blog, which sadly now appears to be defunct, did an excellent post on the topic. It’s well worth a read.

As well, the Harmful Algae Monitoring Project is a great resource. Scientists have been working with salmon farmers since 1999 to monitor and better understand harmful algae (plankton) blooms.

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