Muzzled salmon biologist’s lab faces funding woes

Vancouver Sun Mon Aug 22 2011

By Margaret Munro  Postmedia News With Files From Matt Robinson, Vancouver Sun

A fisheries biologist has not only been muzzled by the federal government, but her lab could be in trouble as well, Postmedia News has learned.

Kristi Miller, a geneticist who was silenced by the federal government’s Privy Council Office in January, will finally be permitted to speak this week at the inquiry looking into the decline of Fraser River salmon.

She is due to testify at the Cohen Commission on Wednesday about her team’s ominous discovery that viral pathogens may be weakening the fish. Federal documents indicate she might also have plenty to say about the health of her lab at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

The lab’s current “funding model,” which has been paying many technical staff, has been found to be “non-compliant with DFO policy,” Ruth Withler, a senior scientist in the lab wrote in a Jan. 13 message to staff in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The document, released under access to information laws, says the decision to change the funding model could be “jeopardizing future involvement of DFO science staff” in the type of “innovative research” done in Miller’s lab.

Miller is head of the Molecular Genetics Laboratory, based in Nanaimo, and Withler helped pioneer the genetic tests used there.

Miller and Withler were not allowed to give interviews to discuss the funding problem, and DFO’s media office responded to questions with a terse written statement.

The office said a Treasury Board directive from late 2009 indicates that outside funds, or “special purpose money,” must not be used to pay the salaries of government employees.

About half the lab’s 19 highly technical staff have been paid for years using external funds. DFO’s media office says between $600,000 to $800,000 a year of outside money has been used to pay the salaries of eight to 11 of the lab’s staff, depending on the year.

Several federal labs across Canada are said to be affected by the Treasury Board directive, but Miller’s lab is one of the hardest hit because it has been so successful at attracting money and clients. While Withler’s message says the directive could threaten future research, the media office said the department will continue to pay the salaries. The lab, which has been described as a “CSI for fish,” plays a key role in managing the troubled Fraser River fishery. It tests fish for hatcheries, private companies and first nations groups, but its biggest client is the Pacific Salmon Commission, an agency financed by the Canadian and U.S. governments that helps run the Fraser fishery.

“It’s one of the cornerstones of our program,” Mike Lapointe, the commission’s chief biologist, said of the lab’s genetic testing.

Lapointe said the commission learned last winter that the lab had run into problems over using outside money to pay staff and understands the issue has not yet been resolved.

He said the commission pays the lab between $300,000 and $400,000 a year to test thousands of salmon bound for the Fraser and its tributaries.

Tiny samples are snipped off the fish and rushed to the Nanaimo lab. In less than 24 hours, the results can determine to which stock, or run, the fish belong. Salmon spend several years at sea before returning to their native rivers and streams to spawn, and some stocks have been severely depleted.

“They’re providing a great service,” said Lapointe, noting how the tests enable managers to fine-tune fishery openings and closures to take advantage of strong stocks and protect weak ones. Miller, Withler and colleagues Terry Beacham and John Candy have been perfecting the stock identification techniques for years, according to the DFO’s website. Their database now contains the genetic signatures of thousands of salmon from hundreds of B.C. streams and rivers, enabling them to quickly determine the destination of incoming fish.

Miller has built up the program to assess the health of migrating salmon, and leads a $5.3-million project, financed in part by Genome British Columbia and the salmon commission.

Using “microarrays” that look at thousands of genes at once, the team can see which genes are turned on and off in the fish, and pick up the telltale signs of infections caused by viruses and microbes.

They have turned up evidence that many sockeye are entering the Fraser in a compromised state, possibly because of viral infections. That discovery was published in January in Science, one of the world’s top research journals.

The Privy Council Office, which works closely with the Prime Minister’s Office, would not let Miller discuss the findings when they were published, saying that might interfere with the Cohen Commission, according to documents released under access to information.

Observers, such as environmentalist Alexandra Morton, who are keen to hear what Miller will tell the commission this week, say it is critical for the research to continue to determine the nature and source of the possible viral infections.

Experts scheduled to testify at this week’s hearings also include Stewart Johnson, head of aquatic animal health at DFO, who has published reports on sea lice, a parasite that attaches to and feeds on salmon and other fish.

Christine MacWilliams, a fish health veterinarian with DFO’s salmonid enhancement program, will also testify. She is an authority on issues including disease control in hatcheries and investigations into unexplained mortalities in wild fish populations.

Other testimony will come from Michael Kent, a professor with Oregon State University, and Craig Stephen, a director at the University of Calgary.

Kent’s research focuses on chronic infectious diseases affecting wild salmon, while Stephen works on aquatic health issues and is the president of the Centre for Coastal Health, an organization focused on issues affecting human, animal and environmental health.

Kyle Garver, a DFO research scientist who works on virus detection and vaccine development, will testify Wednesday and Thursday.

Thursday is also the start of nine days of hearings into the role fish farming may have played in the declining Fraser River stocks.

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