Fisheries and Oceans Canada looking into claims of sick herring

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is trying to confirm reports from an independent biologist that herring around northern Vancouver Island have a disease that is causing bleeding from their gills, bellies and eyeballs.

Alexandra Morton wrote to DFO asking for an investigation and viral testing of the fish after she pulled up a net of about 100 herring near Sointula and found they were all bleeding.

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“It was pretty shocking to see,” said Morton, who has seen herring suffering from viruses before, but never so sick. “These are very strong disease symptoms. These fish are in much worse condition.”

She suspects the herring could be suffering from viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus — an infectious disease of fish — and wants DFO to collect and test specimens.

Morton also wants federal fisheries officials to do genomic profiling on the herring to gain some insight into their immune system, but a DFO spokeswoman said that is probably not possible.

The concern is that the virus could spread to wild salmon, said Morton, a vocal opponent of fish farms.

Herring school with small sockeye salmon and are also eaten by chinook and coho.

Arlene Tompkins of DFO’s salmon assessment section said staff in the Port Hardy area have not found bleeding herring.

“We are trying to retrieve samples, but [Monday] we were not successful because of heavy fog,” she said. “We haven’t had any other reports of fish kills or die-offs.”

Tompkins has seen photographs provided by Morton, but said it is difficult to speculate what is causing the bleeding until diagnostic tests can be carried out.

DFO fish health experts say the bleeding could stem from a range of causes as herring naturally carry a variety of pathogens, Tompkins said.

Viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus has previously been identified in Pacific herring and other fish species in B.C.

It is possible that herring could pass the virus to wild salmon, Tompkins said. “They share the same ecosystem as the salmon. They share the ocean and there’s potential for pathogens to be passed from one to another.”

A recent scientific paper by researchers from the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo and U.S. Western Fisheries Research Center in Washington says that Atlantic salmon in fish farms can develop viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus and pass it to Pacific herring, causing large-scale die-offs.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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