Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 6:46 PM on Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More cases of lethal ISA virus reported

The Vancouver Sun is reporting that the lethal salmon virus Infectious Salmon Anemia has now been found in four species of wild salmon in British Columbia. The news has prompted calls from Alaska and Washington state senators to have the samples independently tested by United States labs. Critics in British Columbia are demanding their government end the practice of letting salmon farming companies do the required regular testing for ISA.

The new cases were found in coho, chum and chinook salmon in the Frasier River drainage, about 375 miles from River's Inlet where two sockeye tested positive last month.

Biologist and salmon advocate Alexandra Morton told the Sun, "The terrible thing about the work that myself and (Simon Frasier University researcher Rick) Routledge have done is that it's tiny. We looked at 60 fish, and we got it (ISA) in two different generations, 600 kilometres apart, four different species. That's a huge red flag."

Meanwhile, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell and Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich have sent a letter to key Senate appropriators calling for them to prioritize the resources and coordination necessary to address the emerging salmon virus threat. The letter came the day after Senate passage of bipartisan legislation authored by Cantwell and backed by all eight West Coast senators that requires an investigation be conducted and a rapid response plan be delivered to Congress within six months.

"We urge the U.S. government to obtain samples from the two infected sockeye and run independent diagnostic tests to confirm the presence of the ISA virus in British Columbia," the senators wrote. "We should not rely on another government — particularly one that may have a motive to misrepresent its findings — to determine how we assess the risk ISA may pose to American fishery jobs."

The letter was sent to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies which funds the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"The threat of a potentially devastating infectious salmon virus needs an immediate federal response," the senators continued.

"We are writing to urge you to marshal the resources we need to prioritize Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) research, surveillance, outreach, and mitigation measures across the Pacific Northwest and develop a response plan. At risk are healthy salmon populations which are the foundation for tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity throughout the West Coast."

The letter outlines actions that the senators urge NMFS to take. Those actions include confirming by the U.S. government of the presence of the salmon virus in British Columbia; evaluating and bolstering the nation's surveillance and monitoring framework; measuring salmon virus susceptibility among different populations and species of wild salmon in the North Pacific; developing essential action plans to respond to the salmon virus; integrating salmon virus monitoring into existing outreach programs to protect the seafood industry from consumer uncertainty (the virus does not pose a threat to human health); and protecting current salmon restoration programs.

A highly endangered short-tailed albatross has been taken in the Bering Sea longline groundfish fishery, the third since August of 2010, a surprising run of kills that comes on the heels of 12 years without a single one being taken.

National Marine Fisheries Service, under the Endangered Species Act, allows for four short-tailed albatross to be killed in a two-year period. This is the first take in the two-year period that began Sept. 16, 2011.

To date, the incidental take levels have not been reached during any of the two-year periods, but the deaths of three birds in 14 months is cause for concern for the longline fleet, which can face restrictions or even closure if the allowed take is reached.

With a wingspan of over 7 feet, the short-tailed albatross is the largest seabird in the North Pacific. Its long, narrow wings are adapted to soaring low over the ocean, and generally only comes ashore to raise its young. It is best distinguished from other albatrosses by its large, bubblegum-pink bill.

Fishermen who have seen one of the rare birds say there's no mistaking them for their more common cousin, the Laysan albatross.

Current world-wide population estimates for the short-tailed albatross is about 3,500 individuals, although they once numbered in the millions. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, feather hunters clubbed to death an estimated five million of them, stopping only when the species was nearly extinct, according to NMFS. In the 1930s, nesting habitat on the only active nesting island, located in Japan, was damaged by volcanic eruptions, leaving fewer than 50 birds by the 1940s. They were declared extinct (prematurely) in 1949.

The NMFS Alaska Regional Office, NMFS North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are actively coordinating efforts and communicating with each other in response to this latest take incident and are complying to the fullest extent with ESA requirements to protect the species, NMFS reports. NMFS is also working closely with the Pacific cod freezer longline fleet in which the bird was taken, to evaluate what additional actions can be taken by the fleet to avoid further takes.

To assist in this coordinated effort, NMFS reminds operators of hook-and-line vessels in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska that they are required to employ multiple seabird avoidance measures.

"Hook-and-line vessel operators should be alert to the presence of short-tailed albatrosses in this area and fish with all due caution to avoid further incidental take of this endangered species," said Jim Balsiger, regional administrator for the Alaska Region of NOAA Fisheries.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.