Deadly salmon virus raises concerns in Washington state

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by KING 5 News and Associated Press

KING5.com

Posted on October 18, 2011 at 5:16 PM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 18 at 5:21 PM

SEATTLE - Victor Alcazar is part of a five-generation fishing family, and what he's hearing right now has him worried there won't be a sixth.

“I worry about the whole generations, our sons and sons and sons. In the next 10 years we're gonna be wiped out because of disease,” he said.

That "disease" is a virus called infectious salmon anemia, detected by Canadian researchers in wild Northwest salmon - a virus they've never seen in Northwest waters before.  It's believed to be the same strain that killed off 70 percent of farmed salmon stocks in Chile in recent years.

Researchers say no country has ever eradicated the disease once it arrives.

In a sort of aquatic "hot zone" government scientists in Seattle are now preparing to battle the outbreak.
  
While there is no direct connection yet, the virus is believed to have started in farmed fish from the Atlantic and spread here through fish eggs used in Canadian farms.
  
The question now, how far has the virus spread and how deadly is it to fish?
  
A widespread outbreak could impact everything from hungry bears and orcas to the price of salmon on your dinner table.

“I think the worst case scenario is this virus begins to impact and add to the natural mortality of wild Pacific salmon. That is something they don't need right now,” said James Winton, USGS researcher.

Victory Alcazar is worried about feeding his family and what could be yet another blow to the fishermen of the Northwest:

“I guess we gonna have to go sell drugs or something else because this is our future. This is our life,” he said.

The disease poses no health risk to humans.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's John Kerwin on Tuesday said his agency wants to refine its testing methods to improve detection of the virus. The state tested about 56,000 fish last year and so far has not found signs of infectious salmon anemia.

U.S. Geological Survey scientist James Winton calls the news a disease emergency. He says officials on both side of the border should step up research, surveillance and testing.

What is infectious salmon anemia?

Infectious salmon anemia is basically the flu for fish. And like human flu it can easily spread and mutate.

Farmed salmon confined in pens can’t be treated for it. You cannot inoculate individual fish and even if you could, it mutates, so like human flu, you would have to update and tweak it almost annually.

Farms in the pacific northwest and up in Canada are constantly tested and farm groups say more than 4,700 tissue tests for is a were conducted on B.C. farmed salmon, without a single positive result.

But wild salmon groups are saying wait a minute this virus came here in eggs and they are convinced it's a farmed salmon problem. These two sides have been at each other for decades and this will only create more tension between them.

KING 5's Gary Chittim contributed to this report.
 

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