Thank you, Mr. Chair.
When I was first invited to speak to the committee, I was going to speak to you about sea lice, because it's a subject on which I've published rather extensively. I expect, however, that you've heard quite a bit about them by now, and there's something entirely new that I want to talk to you about instead today.
Dr. Di Cicco touched on it. It's a new study that has come out of the SSHI dealing with a bacterium called Tenacibaculum. Because that is a mouthful for late in the afternoon, I am going to henceforth refer to it by the disease it causes, which is “mouth rot”, if you'll forgive me for being a little unscientific about it.
What I want to talk to you about concerning mouth rot is the significance of the finding. You will all be familiar with the Cohen commission's failure to find what Justice Cohen referred to as “the smoking gun”. I think we may have found it.
This bacterium has been determined first of all to infect wild juvenile salmon and to have, in the words of the SSHI, “population level impacts”. This is what we were looking for all along in terms of being able to quantify the risk to sockeye salmon, and to the Fraser River sockeye salmon in particular.
What's even more important about the findings is that the SSHI was able to spatially determine where this was taking place. By testing actual samples of wild fish along their migration route, they were able to determine that the infections were occurring within the Discovery Islands region, that the bacterium was present on the salmon farms there, and that survival was being impaired to the extent of 87.9% of migrating sockeye.
That's a very important bit of information, and it directly contradicts the conclusions of one of the nine risk assessments the Department of Fisheries and Oceans conducted to inform the minister about her decision on the Discovery Islands.
I want to spend a second to take you back through that risk assessment for mouth rot, because it's important to see what happened there. The department concluded that there was a high risk of an outbreak, that it was very likely that this disease would break out on a salmon farm, but also that it was very likely that juvenile salmon would be exposed to the organism. What they didn't know—they concluded it was highly uncertain—was whether or not sockeye could become infected as a result of exposure. Not knowing this, they went on to decide that neither the abundance nor the diversity of Fraser River sockeye would be impacted beyond a negligible extent.
All of those conclusions are now proven wrong. First of all, concerning the likelihood of infection, it's a certainty of an infection. Secondly, concerning the severity of the impacts, no one one would call 87.9% a “negligible impact”.
This is one example of how tenuous the DFO risk assessments are. The science to underpin them simply has not been done. Here we have it done, and the risk assessment goes out the window.
The next important point is what happened when this information was sent up the chain of command in DFO, or more precisely what didn't happen. Dr. Miller-Saunders advised senior management on December 15, 2020, just before the minister's decision was to be made, that she had new modelling results and new evidence that was highly germane to the decision to be made.
When committee members ultimately get my written documents, you'll see that I've copied into them verbatim from an ATIP result that we got searching for the correspondence around the communication of these findings. It's really interesting to note that Dr. Miller-Saunders gave to her immediate superiors a complete lay description of the findings, so there could be no uncertainty as to how important the findings were.
She said, in her initial email on December 15 at one in the afternoon, that “our models have revealed population-level associations with survival and condition with this agent”—being mouth rot—“for Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon”.
She also pointed out that she'd been discussing these findings and the work that was being done to arrive at these findings with staff for more than a year, so this is nothing coming out of the blue at them.
An excerpt from the lay description that Dr. Miller-Saunders provided made it clear. Contributions from Discovery Islands salmon farms dwarf those from other salmon farming locations. Farm-source infection pressure peaked at 12.7 times the background infection levels for this agent. The model resulted in an 87.9% reduction in smolt survival. It was very clear.
The summary paragraph at the end of that lay description laid it out even more clearly: “Our models raise realistic and serious concerns about farm-origin transmission of”—mouth rot—“to Fraser River sockeye salmon and population-level impacts to Chinook, coho and sockeye.” Although “there remains uncertainty”, she says, “it is the bulk of evidence, rather than any one particular model, that should give pause.”
The summary goes on to say, “Taken together”, the results identify mouth rot as “one of the most likely candidates for population-level impacts on wild populations, and present evidence that infections in the Fraser River sockeye may originate from salmon-farm sources, especially in the Discovery Islands region. Given knowledge about the depressed state of Fraser River sockeye stocks, the evidence we have presented suggests extreme caution and further research are required.”