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Update: Senator Cantwell calls for investigation into salmon virus

Sockeye salmon populations are facing a new challenge.
Sockeye salmon populations are facing a new challenge.

Federal fisheries scientists plan to survey Pacific Northwest and Alaskan waters to determine if a harmful European fish virus has spread here.

And now, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and two senators from Alaska are calling for an investigation into the spread of the virus striking Canadian salmon.

Surprise finding

This week, scientists in British Columbia announced they've found the fish-killing virus in wild Pacific salmon for the first time.

The detection of the contagion in wild British Columbia sockeye comes as a surprise. Infectious Salmon Anemia is not harmful to humans, but the virus has previously inflicted heavy losses on Atlantic fish farms.

The big unknown is how vulnerable wild Pacific salmon and herring are. The Western Fisheries Research Center lab in Seattle plans to investigate quickly says microbiologist Jim Winton.

"It could range from relatively severe to maybe not-so-severe depending on the susceptibility of these stocks," he says.

Push for federal investigation

The amendment, introduced last night by Cantwell and senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich to the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, calls on the National Aquatic Animal Health Task Force to evaluate the risk the virus could have on salmon off West Coast waters and Alaskan waters, and to develop a plan to address this emerging threat.

“We need to act now to protect the Pacific Northwest’s coastal economy and jobs,” Sen. Cantwell said in a press release. “There’s no threat to human health, but infectious salmon anemia could pose a serious threat to Pacific Northwest wild salmon and the thousands of Washington state jobs that rely on them. We have to get a coordinated game plan in place to protect our salmon and stop the spread of this deadly virus.”

Farmed salmon blamed by some

Some wild salmon advocates strongly suspect the disease was introduced to the North Pacific via farmed Atlantic salmon. They want saltwater salmon farms in Washington and British Columbia shut down while the outbreak is investigated.

The B.C. salmon farm industry insists tests on their fish have found no signs of infection.

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Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.