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DFO scientist says she may have the 'smoking gun' that killed Fraser River sockeye

Dr. Kristi Miller during a break at the Cohen Commission where she was testifying in the salmon inquiry in Vancouver on Aug. 24, 2011.


After several months of testimony at a public inquiry set up to examine the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon, a molecular scientist told the commission she may have discovered the "smoking gun" that explains what happened to millions of fish.

Kristi Miller of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans testified at the Cohen Commission Wednesday, her first public comments since she published a paper on the fish-borne virus earlier this year in the prestigious journal Science. DFO often promotes interviews when one of its researchers receives international recognition, but all requests to speak with Dr. Miller were denied.

Gregory McDade, the lawyer for both anti-fish farm activist Alexandra Morton and a conservation coalition, asked Dr. Miller if the virus could explain why Fraser River sockeye stocks collapsed in 2009.

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"It could be the smoking gun," she replied. "I have some level of confidence that we will find disease with this virus but we do have to do the work."

Dr. Miller said researchers believe they're dealing with a parvovirus – the first of its kind to be found in fish.

"If it turns out to be the virus and if it turns out to have the mortality that you speculate it has, it could be a really significant explanation for the 2009 decline," Mr. McDade posited.

Answered Dr. Miller: "There is certainly the potential that this virus could have a major impact on salmon declines."

Dr. Kyle Garver, a DFO research scientist, testified alongside Dr. Miller and said he was concerned about fuelling speculation.

"We have a parvovirus sequence. We don't have it linked to a disease. We don't have it linked to mortality. We don't know how it's transmitted. We don't know if it causes disease. We don't have any pathology associated with it. So if we're sitting around discussing scientific hypothesis, this is fine, but if we're actually trying to get to some answers, it's pure speculation."

To this point, the Cohen Commission had been a relatively low-key affair. But before Dr. Miller took the stand Wednesday, activists held a rally to show their support and named her "Scientist of the Year." They also donned shirts that read, "It's Miller Time!" The molecular scientist has become a cause célèbre for activists who oppose fish farms and believe Dr. Miller was silenced by the federal government.

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Dr. Miller's arrival created a media frenzy, in part because it seemed an effort was made to keep her research under wraps. The commission hearing room holds about 130 audience members; only a couple of empty seats remained when testimony began.

Mr. McDade asked Dr. Miller if any links to the parvovirus and fish farms could be made. She said it was uncertain. She said she had not received any samples from B.C. fish farms, but DFO and the industry recently reached an agreement that would allow her to test for the parvovirus.

She was asked by commission counsel if she had been silenced. She responded that DFO instituted a media ban so its research would be discussed first at the Cohen Commission. She did not explain why such a move was necessary, particularly for work that was published and in the public realm.

She denied she was ever told what she could or could not publish.

"As scientists, we do our research, we come up with our conclusions, we write our papers, and there's nothing to stop us from publishing our research."

Dr. Miller said she was among a number of DFO employees who were once barred from attending a university think-tank because of concern the media would be there.

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Her Science report, titled "Genomic Signatures Predict Migration and Spawning Failure in Wild Canadian Salmon," hypothesized that "the genomic signal associated with elevated mortality is in response to a virus infecting fish before river entry and that persists to the spawning areas."

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