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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hitting close to home: Sointula, Rivers Inlet sockeye, and Infectious Salmon Anemia

Will Soltau is the Local Coordinator for Living Oceans Society's Salmon Farming campaign

Even though tonight is game six of the World Series, I’m blogging about those Rivers Inlet sockeye that tested positive for the Infectious Salmon Anemia Virus (ISAv). I’m breaking blog protocol with back to back posts on the same subject but since both Blog Brothers (Jake and John) are away, protocol shmotocol.

This news is hitting close to home.

This community - Sointula - has been sustained by fishing for over 100 years. Much of that sustenance came from Rivers and Smith Inlet sockeye.

Our staff photo for a few years back was taken under a mural painted on the wall of the Sointula Co-op. That mural illustrates the heritage of this place, this coast. Those little dories are fishing boats getting ready to be towed up to Rivers Inlet for the salmon season by a packer. They didn’t have engines. They didn’t even have cabins. A tarp was stretched across the gunwales for shelter from the weather. None of them had drums to retrieve the gear; the fishermen pulled their nets by hand. There were certainly no electronics like radar to find one’s way in the fog which is pretty much a daily occurrence during fishing season.

People would go up in the early summer hoping to catch sockeye and come home safely with enough money to make it through another winter. If not, they'd go to work in the woods - as attested to by my friend's nickname, "No Salmon Been Loggin".

Photo credit: J. Salo

Rivers Inlet was the third largest sockeye run in BC after the Fraser and the Skeena Rivers. The inlet was peppered with canneries to process the abundance. The variety of labels on the cans from those plants is a testament to the plenty. But, as the saying goes, good things don’t last forever and the sockeye and fishery declined. Rivers Inlet was closed for commercial sockeye fishing nearly a decade now and it has had a devastating effect on our community. (An internationally renowned sports fishery for the mighty Whonnock River Chinook still remains). After the commercial sockeye fishery closure, dedicated researchers have been trying to decipher why these stocks aren’t rebuilding.

The ISAv finding must have been unnerving for them. Their announcement sent shock waves up and down the Pacific Northwest including Sointula since this was the first report of the virus being detected in Pacific wild salmon. The Canadian government is retesting those samples to confirm the finding. If the virus is confirmed, it begs the question about the virus’ prevalence and distribution in the Whonnock River and Oweekeno Lake system (the Whonnock River Chinook spawn in the same watershed as the sockeye). Are these prized sports fish infected? What about the other salmon stocks in Rivers Inlet or Smith Inlet next door where sockeye there have started showing signs of rebounding?

B.C.’s neighbors to the north and south are keeping a close eye on the developments here and are already planning to ramp up ISAv testing in their wild salmon. If confirmation shows that the virulent European strain of ISAv is present in BC, salmon farmers also stand to lose big time since they still have all their Atlantics swimming around in sieves instead of in closed containment facilities.

There will likely be a big push to eradicate the virus, even though that has not been possible anywhere else in the world. But if hubris prevails, how might it be attempted?

I keep thinking about a trip I took to Norway many years ago to investigate the budding salmon farming industry there. I also met with scientists storing the frozen milt of some wild salmon stocks in liquid nitrogen in order to preserve their genetic diversity. I heard about every aquatic organism in whole rivers being poisoned as a last resort to rid those systems of an alien and unwanted parasite.

If that happens here, it would be hitting too close to home.


  1. What can we do as regular 'joe public'? Who can I write letters to? Whose email box should I fill?

  2. Hi Racelle,
    Thanks for your great question. At this point I can only hope and pray that the CFIA tests turn up negative. But as they say,"Live in hope, die in despair" so good idea to take action.

    Send a message to your Member of Parliament. Be sure to cc your email to Prime Minister Harper, Minster Keith Ashfield of Fisheries and Oceans and Minister John Duncan of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development whose riding includes Rivers Inlet and Sointula. All of their email addresses can be found at this link:

    Tell them this is a grave situation because, if the CFIA confirm the presence of the ISA virus in the Rivers Inlet sockeye, there is little that can be done to eradicate it. Tell them to immediately close our borders to the importation of salmon eggs from foreign sources and expand testing of our wild salmon and also of farmed salmon for any signs of the virus. Tell them to deny all applications for new or expanded open net-cage salmon farms and instead invest in ways to transition those already in the water into closed containment asap.