There are special times in the history of government when a scandal is so far-reaching, so undeniable, so universally despised, that it receives the suffix of “gate”. A time of deep connivance between people, really, when the mere evocation of a public agency’s name is enough to provoke collective laughter, shrugs, and bemused what the hell were they thinking looks. We are at one of those junctures. We are about to enter salmongate.
On Tuesday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) gave a surreal press conference to announce to the world that the Infectious Salmon Anemia virus outbreak was not happening in British Columbia. The CFIA was assisted in this dangerous enterprise by the usual suspects, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Province of British Columbia.
Dr. Con Kiley, Director of National Aquatic Animal Health at the CFIA, announced that his agency had tested the 48 samples used in previous tests and that all of them were negative for ISA. There is no evidence that ISA occurs in fish off the waters of British Columbia(*), he concluded with a confident voice intended at subduing the assembled media.
Dr. Kiley’s seduction attempt did not succeed. He was met instead with a barrage of hard questions by a very skeptical bunch of journalists. A reporter from the Seattle Times asked some of the most relevant questions of the conference as he tried to piece together the contradictory information he was receiving from his various sources:
Q: You say all tests are negative. But Dr. Nylund from the reference laboratory inNorway told me in an email that the samples suggest ISA is present. Explain this discrepancy.
A: We would consider his report as inconclusive. We would consider that to be negative, because it was not repeatable. Dr. Nylund got only one positive from multiple tests on one sample. And he said it was not reproducible. So technically, according to CFIA standards, it is negative.
Like a compromised fish sample, the quality of the government’s message degraded rapidly. They had started with the solid, simple line that all results were negative. Then, under journalistic pressure, they retreated to a very different and much more complex place, that the results were actually inconclusive. And then, they moved to the realm of the incomprehensible, by stating that a positive could technically be read as a negative. They were losing their grip over their media conference. But then it got much worse for them, as the journalist from the Seattle Times continued:
Q: Do you plan to share those samples with research labs in the US?
A: What would be the point? The problem is that the quality of the samples is partially or totally degraded. We received them in poor condition. Sharing these samples would not be good science.
Q: Does this comment apply to the samples collected more recently in the FraserRiver as well?
A: This is true for the majority - for all - the samples. Some were collected in June and stored at minus 20 degrees. So it's inconclusive. Sharing these samples would be pointless.
To tell an American reporter that it is “pointless” to hand over samples to American labs because that would not be “good science” even though those could hold the key to a direct threat to American fisheries, and that therefore the only option for Americans in this matter is to trust a Canadian bureaucracy – even though a Norwegian scientist has said otherwise – is truly a form of media suicide. I cannot wait to read tomorrow morning’s Seattle Times article.
A reporter from Yukon News ventured to ask: are you planning to do any further tests up North in the Yukon? Dr. Kiley gave a response for the books: No, we only do our investigations in Canadian waters. Well last time I checked, Yukon was still part of Canada, she was quick to reply. Ah OK, well no – we have no plans for further testing up North, he said dismissively as if his response contained its self-evident justification.
Damien Gillis from the Common Sense Canadian concluded the press conference with a line of questioning which captured the general sentiment and provided a perfect wrap-up:
Q: What do you make of the precautionary principle?
A: We take any finding of disease very seriously.
Q: It did not sound like it today, though.
A: We use science as our guiding principle in all things. And right now, we can say there is no evidence of ISA in British Columbia.
Q: What you just stated right now is actually the opposite of the precautionary principle.
A: We take it all seriously, that's all I can say.
Where were they hoping to go with this? Because meanwhile, Dr. Alexandra Morton and her team are busy sampling hundreds of wild salmon around British Columbia. When new positives of ISA start coming in (and sadly, they will), how will the CFIA respond after what they have told the media today? They have painted themselves into a corner.
This disastrous media conference is not an isolated incident but instead the latest episode in a long chain of cover-ups, media blunders, and first magnitude screw-ups which indicate that the lid is about to come off in Canada’s salmongate. Here is a quick recap:
Back in September, it was revealed at the Cohen Commission that Dr. Kristi Miller’s work on salmon leukemia was being directly controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa. In particular, the PMO intervened to ban Miller from responding to media requests in the days leading to the publication of her research in the prestigious journal Science.
At Cohen, we also discovered that DFO had cut off all funding – that’s zerodollars – for Dr. Miller’s critical research on salmon. To our knowledge, the funding still remains cut off to this day.
When the first positive results of ISA were discovered, The Provincial Government made the accusation that the original samples that tested positive had been destroyed. In an ironically self-defeating comment (since it was later confirmed that the samples were fine), Liberal MLA. D. McRae said in the BC Legislature: “Well, we've got another example of spinning media headlines and fear mongering from the opposition.”
Around the same time, Province-of-BC lead veterinarian Dr. Gary Marty wasasked by CBC Radio about the multiple cases of jaundiced salmon that Alexandra Morton had found in the Fraser River with heavily diseased livers. With a straight face, he answered that those may have been (wait wait wait)albino fish. What about their diseased livers? Ah yeah, albino fish with a drinking problem, I guess.
Perhaps one of the more disturbing recent incidents. After ISA was discovered, many members of the public such as myself posted the lab results on their blogs, as a public service. The director of the lab that had done the testing, Dr. Fred Kibenge, wrote to salmon activist Don Staniford asking him to remove the lab results from his blog, because “this information was not intended for the public and should not be posted anywhere publicly”.
And now, this press conference from another planet by the CFIA.
I am seriously running out of space to relate in detail all the major and minor mistakes that government reps have made as they scramble to cover up the ISA trail. At least, the salmon farming industry is being smart by mostly keeping its mouth shut about all of this and letting government take the lead in appearing as complete fools. When events create a feeling of laughter, ridicule, and anger at he same time, this is the first clue that the people in charge of the cover-up are going in a panic and losing their grip over reality. If one goes by the above list, we have definitely reached that place.
What’s perhaps most troubling in this sad matter is how lead government scientists – not just politicians – have weighed into the balance and come up with such absurd and callous comments as those uttered by Dr. Marty or Dr. Kiley, or such problematic demands as that of Dr. Kibenge.
May this be a reminder that the scientific elite is a key partner in this salmon-industrial complex, working hand in hand with industry and government in perpetuating the status quo. And so, the scientific elite’s governance over our scientific matters will come to an end as well, when salmongate explodes.