Monday, October 17, 2011

Manufactured disaster

The ISA virus. Photo: Fisheries Research Service

Sadly, we had it coming. It is now official. The European strain of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) has been reported today for the first time in Pacific wild salmon. It was found in sockeye caught on the central coast of British Columbia. Read the press release from Salmon Are Sacred, and the stories all over the media.

ISA is a deadly virus directly linked to fish farms. It has decimated salmon stocks in many countries since the 1980s such as Norway, Scotland, Chile. Entire ecosystems and coastal communities have been ecologically and economically devastated by this salmon equivalent of the Black Death. And now we learn we have it too.

With such a dangerous virus out in the open around the world for so many years, the question on everyone’s minds this morning was: how did we get to this? How did we allow this virus to even reach the shores of British Columbia? Surely by now, we know how to stop this thing, don’t we?

We actually do, and we have known for many years. Ban the import of Atlantic salmon hatchery eggs. In this age of total globalization, even farmed salmon eggs are no longer produced locally but rather thousands of miles away, usually in Europe. Those imported eggs are important, because scientists see them as the primary vector in the transmission of viruses such as ISA from one region of the world to the other.

Since the late 1980s, scientists in Canada and elsewhere have relentlessly alerted government against the risks of such egg imports. But Canada’s Department of Fish Farms chose instead to ignore those calls and adopted a policy of institutional recklessness to fulfill its mandate of serving industrial aquaculture. A report written by Dr. Alexandra Morton for the Cohen Commission before ISA was discovered in BC, and which was recently admitted as evidence in spite of furious objections on the part of government and industry lawyers, explains in detail how government has gambled with our wild salmon.

BC’s eggs, Morton explains, are shipped from a hatchery in Iceland called Stofnfiskur. The problem is that this particular hatchery does not meet the health safety standards of Canadian law. So technically, they couldn’t be imported. Don’t let that technicality stop the Department of Fish Farms, though! In a briefing dated 2004, DFF’s Director for the Pacific Region Laura Richards articulated the following key arguments in an effort to allow those eggs into Canada in spite of their non-compliance:

  • “Two BC salmon farming companies wish to import Atlantic salmon eggs from Stofnfiskur, an Icelandic company which is not certified under the Canadian Fish Health Protection Regulations”
  • “Failure to provide permission for egg importation may trigger a trade challenge under the World Trade Organization …” 
  • “Additionally, DFO could also be viewed as causing a competitive disadvantage of the aquaculture industry by denying them access to alternate strains”
Following this briefing, Alexandra Morton wrote to Justice Cohen in her report, “Laura Richards was successful in her petition to allow eggs from a hatchery that does not meet Canada’s Fish Health Protection Regulations.” By opening that regulatory backdoor for the industry, Dr. Richards may have allowed the ISA virus to enter British Columbia.

In that same report, Dr. Morton also showed that the ISA virus may have been present in BC for several years but that scientists on government payroll have chosen not to acknowledge that possibility. Dr Gary Marty, a lead veterinarian with the Province of BC, reported cases of classic lesions associated with ISA 1,100 times since 2006. Yet he never registered any of those repeated diagnoses – not a single time – as being the ISA virus itself, even though the disease was very well known worldwide and was routinely associated with fish farm operations similar to those found in British Columbia, and even though the symptoms matched the disease perfectly.

The problem in this matter is not so much Dr. Marty’s personal decision not to recognize those thousand diagnoses as being ISA. Rather, as Alex Morton noted in her report to Cohen, the problem is that “Dr. Marty is the only government person we know of who is doing these examinations.” Placed by his employer, the government of BC, in a position of complete monopoly over the diagnosis of ISA, Dr. Marty can literally say whatever takes his fancy about those symptoms. For that matter, he could have said that those fish died of old age. No other scientist is in a position to either confirm or challenge his conclusions, not having access to the same information as he does. And so, Marty’s statement that those classic symptoms of ISA are not actually ISA can never be scientifically disproved. It is, as Morton wrote to Cohen, a statement that “could be repeated indefinitely”.

And this is how a government maintains the status quo, preserves a position of business as usual no matter what may be happening in the real world. By manufacturing self-supporting scientific statements which cannot be challenged, the charade can be, in effect, maintained and repeated indefinitely. Of course, this is no longer called science, but dogma. And yes, it may occasionally find itself contradicted by real things that happen in the real world – such as herrings bleeding from their fins, Harrison sockeye dying by the hundreds of thousands without spawning, or the emergence of freakish bright-yellow pink salmon all over the Fraser River. But those are merely PR matters that need to be managed, a small price to pay for the perpetuation of the cozy relationship between government, industry, and the scientific establishment within the salmon-industrial complex.

How does the public fight back? As so many times before, Alexandra Morton is showing the way, and it’s actually simpler than it sounds. She is breaking the monopoly of knowledge that government is working so hard to maintain. She has taken the matter of salmon testing and diagnosis in her own hands. Earlier this month, she went in the field twice to test the salmon – and came back with evidence of severe hepatitis and pre-spawn mortality in the Fraser salmon. She struck a partnership with SFU professor Rick Routledge to send central coast sockeye for testing – and came back with the ISA virus. She has fearlessly denounced the ruthless policy of financial starvation and bureaucratic harassment inflicted by the Department of Fish Farms on one of her most talented scientists, Dr. Kristi Miller – and I will wage my money that Alex will succeed there too in breaking the knowledge impasse. Miller will eventually get her money and her research will resume and provide us with righteous answers.

Fighting back will require an array of initiatives. In this asymmetrical struggle against a bloated and hyper-powerful bureaucracy, our strategy is to initiate shocks which grow over time by taking a life of their own. One such initiative is called the “Kristi Miller Fund”. Back in September, Dr. Miller testified at the Cohen Commission that her research funding for the sockeye salmon had been cut off. In particular, she had applied for a grant to test farmed salmon for the virus signature that she had identified. She was asking for $18,750 – a pittance in research terms – but her hierarchy said sorry, we don’t have the money at this time.

The Kristi Miller Fund
What a slap in the face. We who were sitting in the public gallery at the Cohen Commission on that day were fuming with rage. Then someone said: “So they don’t have that money, eh? Heck! (actually she used another word) Let’s just raise the money ourselves so Kristi Miller can do her testing.” The Kristi Miller Fund was born. To date, about $6,000 of the money has been raised. That’s about a third, not bad. I suspect we will get way beyond the required $18,000 without even breaking a sweat, as soon as this particular initiative will have taken a life of its own and grown beyond control. People have given anywhere between $10 and $1,000. What matters really is not how much each person gives but rather how many people end up contributing to this Fund, that’s the metric I’ll be most interested in.

The purpose of this initiative is not to bail out government with our own paycheques. Rather, it’s to turn this petty, shameful move to starve Miller’s work into a media and PR nightmare for the government. Initiate a shock that will grow on its own and blow up in the bureaucracy’s face. When we have the money, we’ll hold a press conference and put up a big stink about it, hand out to the media a story that they will want to tell. The plan is to force Miller’s hierarchy to miraculously “find” the money that she was denied. It’s really about saving government from its own stupidity, helping the Department of Fish Farms to start its long, painful march towards detox. So than one day, it can break away from its incestuous relationship with industry and be – once again! – the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

People have asked: what happens if the Department of Fish Farms refuses to take the money or if it suddenly finds money of its own to fund Miller? Where does the money go? Well, I think that answer is rather obvious. We will hand it over to Alexandra Morton, so she can do more testing and diagnosis independently of industry and government. That way, we will win on both counts. Miller will get her funding restored, and Morton will continue her heroic work to break the state monopoly over salmon knowledge.

Follow this link to pitch in your own two cents to the Kristi Miller Fund!


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Yellow salmon

Have you ever seen a bright yellow salmon before? With shock and horror, I give you one.

This photo was taken yesterday by Dr. Alexandra Morton and activist Anissa Reed on the banks of the Fraser river.

They found several such dead yellow fish yesterday during a field trip. Those salmon clearly died of jaundice. And when Alex opened one fish, she found a severely diseased liver, one which appeared to be covered with tumor-like growths.

Don't eat that liver!

What is causing this deadly disease in so many of our salmon? Is it a virus? We don’t know. But we need to find out, right now.

Dr. Kristi Miller, the DFO researcher whose work has been recently published in the journal Science, has discovered a candidate virus which may be causing cancer and anemia in wild salmon. Yet last month, it was revealed at the Cohen Commission that she has been denied funding by DFO to test Atlantic salmon in fish farms for her virus. She was asking for $18,750 – a pittance in research terms – yet her DFO hierarchy told her that they didn’t have the money!

Why is DFO doing this? Why is it pretending that it does not have twenty thousand dollars to conduct critical tests on salmon disease? Why would it say that, when it was also revealed at the Commission that the federal government has given $145,000 to the fish farm industry to conduct “research” on how to make farmed salmon more palatable to the end consumer?

Pre-spawn death

As yellow salmon are dying on the banks of the Fraser, this DFO charade must stop. The people of this Province demand that viral tests be performed on fish farms - right now. Not next year. Not next month. Now.

WTF are those whitish growths in that salmon's gills?!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Are we losing our fish?

I am receiving some terrible news from different people today. I don't understand it. So I'm just going to repost it without further comment.

I'll just add this: that this pretty much seems disease-related, definitely looks like a virus of some kind.

So first, I got this from Alex Morton earlier this afternoon:

And only a few minutes ago, I got this from Geoff Gerhart:

Just got some bad news today. I went to the BC rivers day at Britanna creek and was speaking with some people that have a source that has informed them that sockeye are dying by the thousands. They are going up to the birkeanhead river but are not making it before they spawn. The count is estimated at 90,000 dead so far. It has been reported to DFO but they are saying that there is no problem. People have asked DFO to test the fish but they will not do so at this time. I have also seen dead fish that have not spawned. I have seen this before but something is different about this.

What is going on?! Are we losing our fish, not just our salmon, to a deadly virus?

I'm going to sign off for the night because this is more painful than I'd care to share. I may have to cry a little. Maybe tomorrow morning, who knows? I'll have some good news waiting for me in my inbox.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wheat harvest in the city


Hello friends in Vancouver,

Incredible news!

Yesterday night I was on my way for some party and since I was a bit early, I decided to stop for a few minutes at the Strathcona community garden to check on my garden plot.

It was already nightfall, so I didn’t expect to meet anyone in the garden. But instead, I found the garden teeming with life and gardeners inside and around the Garden House busy harvesting wheat!

The wheat, I learned, had been grown over the summer in a neighboring garden and dried in the Garden House for the past few weeks. Gardeners were now threshing - separating the seeds from the straw to complete the harvest.

The atmosphere in the Garden House was eerie and from another world. The smell of dried straw was intoxicating. As I watched the gardeners sift the grains and collect them in large buckets, I was transported to a time and place we don't belong to. 

I took a few low-fi pictures on my iPhone which do a poor job in capturing the magic of the moment. 

I never thought I would see that – people harvesting wheat in the city! Cabbages and tomatoes and beans are one thing. But that’s bread we’re talking about. What a milestone in the fight to regain our food sovereignty.

The gardeners were very much aware of the somewhat groundbreaking nature of their work, and some wondered jokingly whether this constituted or not the largest wheat harvest in Vancouver in recent decades...


Okay so now, here is the scoop:

Today Saturday September 24, 2:00 PM there is a work party at the Strathcona community garden to continue the wheat harvest.

(That’s at 800 Prior Street, at the Garden House behind the apple orchard)


I had plans for this afternoon, but I am definitely changing those to be part of this. Hope you can make it too!

According to the weather man today will be a glorious day and WE ARE GOING TO HARVEST WHEAT IN THE CITY!!


Monday, September 12, 2011

The ugly face of state repression

Mitch Taylor, counsel for the government of Canada. Photo UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Winter 2008
When Mitchell Taylor, the counsel representing Canada, rose last Thursday to cross-examine Alexandra Morton, we were expecting some payback time. For the past two weeks, through the mighty voice of her lawyer Gregory McDade, Alex had exposed to broad light the incestuous relationship between government and industry inside the salmon-industrial complex.

The cases of conflict of interest, incompetence, and acts of sabotage within DFO had piled up at the Cohen Commission like as many dead fish. Mr. Taylor’s job was to level the playing field a little for the government of Canada by bringing as much discredit as possible onto Alexandra Morton. Character assassination was his mandate, a despicable but generally accepted practice in the legal profession. So we were definitely waiting for him on that terrain.

Taylor performed his duty meticulously. He insisted on calling his witness “Ms. Morton” rather than the customary “Doctor” used to address people holding a Doctorate. He attempted to bring her US degree into disrepute by alluding to her university as being “famous for political activism”. He systematically declined to discuss any of Morton’s numerous published scientific papers or any of their content, insisting rather that she was an “advocate against open net fish farms” and that her primary activity in life was to “write a blog” and to be “quite a prolific emailer”.

Mr. Taylor did something else, however, which was not expected of him and of a different nature altogether. Deliberately, he crossed a red line. He used a technical and overall minor incident to conduct a frontal assault against Alexandra Morton’s right to free expression.

The night before her cross-examination, Alexandra Morton had made a bad judgment call by posting a blog. Something that she had been doing routinely on an almost daily basis for the past several months. September 7, however, was the one night when she shouldn’t have done it, according to a rule of the court that specifies that a witness should not communicate about the ongoing proceedings while under oath. A honest mistake, Morton explained to the court the next morning. I thought that only my evidence, which the public had not yet heard, was included in the ban, I did not know that the material already made public and broadcast live on the Internet was included as well. She apologized to the court and her apology was graciously accepted by Justice Cohen, with apparently little consequence over the proceedings.

Not so for Mr. Taylor of Canada. He wanted to extract his pound of flesh out of Morton’s screw-up. So he put Morton’s September 7 blog on the screen – even though Morton had already removed it from her blog after realizing her mistake –, and he proceeded to dissect it line by line, punctuating every sentence with a you violated the rules of this court reprimand. It would have remained more of the same character assassination exercise, if it were not for what Taylor did next:

Taylor: Let’s continue with your blogging, if we may Ms. Morton. Let’s look at the blog from August 31. This deals with the evidence that the veterinarians gave. If we go to page three, this appears to be a cartoon that you put on the blog of what appears to be the Commissioner speaking to those four witnesses. And the cartoon is showing flames coming from the pants of the witnesses and the words of the Commissioner are “pants on fire”. Ms. Morton, are you familiar with the saying “liar, liar, pants on fire”?

The sight of Mr. Taylor – a sinister figure if there ever was one in a courtroom – uttering on public record the phrase “liar, liar pants of fire” with his nasal daffy-duck voice while maintaining his expressionless poker face was truly hilarious. I could not help but join the rest of the crowd in a rowdy and joyful eruption of laughter.

This moment of comic relief passed quickly though, as I realized what had just happened. The August 31 blog? Wait a minute. Morton was not under oath on that date. This was no longer about her breaking some obscure court rule. What was it, then? Oblivious to the laughter still shaking the public gallery, Taylor continued:

Taylor: Do you agree with me that this cartoon is disparaging of those witnesses’ evidence?

Morton: I thought this was a representation, without saying the words --

Taylor: -- Are you saying they lied?

Morton: How can you look at the symptoms of a disease, have somebody like Dr. Gary Marty report those symptoms as being the clinical signs of marine anemia, which a DFO scientist [Kristi Miller] thinks the majority of Fraser sockeye are being killed and weakened by, and the vets above him, Peter McKenzie of Mainstream, and Dr. Mark Sheppard simply don’t recognize that that disease exists. That --

Taylor: Ms. Morton --

Morton: -- that cannot stand.

Taylor: Ms Morton, this is not an opportunity for you to make a speech.

Morton: Well don’t ask me questions, then.

Okay. Got it. I’m with you now, Mr. Taylor. What you are really getting at with this is that Alexandra Morton should not be criticizing the scientific and industrial establishment – ever, whether or not she is under oath. Because for one thing, this could be construed as libel, a punishable offense. And for another, as Taylor proceeded to explain, this is a morally reprehensible behavior:

Taylor: Do you agree with me that it is against the code of conduct for a registered biologist to speak disparagingly of a colleague registered biologist? 

Morton: It is, yes. 

Taylor: Can we equally apply that, then, to the fact you should not be disparaging of other professionals such as veterinarians?

Morton: Mr. Taylor, my personal code of conduct is that when I see an ecosystem being destroyed, I will use what tools I can that are fair and legal to try and represent that truth. And if --

Taylor: -- all right, thank you.

Morton: -- and if the cartoon was the only way to do it, that’s what I was going to do.

Taylor then brought up another of Morton’s blogs, dated September 5, and therefore also clearly outside of the “no comment while under oath” restriction period. In that blog, Morton referred to an incident where gas bubbles were spotted near a fish farm in the Broughton Archipelago. Called by residents to investigate, DFO biologist Kerra Hoyseth found an underwater pipe full of dead farmed salmon. In spite of her discovery, Hoyseth reported that there was no conclusive evidence as to the exact cause of the gas emanations and so she closed the file.

In her September 5 blog, Morton commented about this incident: “Everyone knows rotting causes gas. I suspect Hoyseth's first instinct was to be more truthful, but I think this painfully illustrates DFO's relationship with fish farms. How can I believe anything DFO says about salmon farms after this? Hoyseth did not tell me the truth. I feel badly for her, because I suspect this was what was expected of her. How many others in DFO are doing the same thing just to keep their job?”

Mr. Taylor charged at Morton head on:

Taylor: You have no evidence that [Ms. Hoyseth] was not telling the truth, do you? You just don’t agree with what she was finding or her interpretation of it. You have a different interpretation.

Morton: Mr. Taylor -- a pipe full of rotting salmon! Ms. Hoyseth, I am sure, understood that it could easily produce bubbles. But it was my interpretation that she did not want to report that to me, and so she glossed over the finding of that entire pipe full of rotting fish.

Taylor: Thank you. You just answered it, because you used the word “interpretation”. Now, you say "How many others in DFO are doing the same thing just to keep their job?" You have no evidence to support that accusation that people in DFO don’t tell the truth just to keep their jobs, do you?

Morton: I actually do. But I am not going to reveal all my sources, because they are scared.

Two things jump out of this extraordinary exchange. One, Morton is sending a stern warning back to Taylor and the members of the scientific-industrial establishment: Sue me if you dare! I will not come to court empty handed. The second is Taylor’s dorky Aha I nailed you answer over the word “interpretation”. How not to think of an Inquisition trial with the church prosecutor exclaiming: She uttered the word of God in vain, what more proof do we need?

Taylor then went to the next level of his attack against Morton. He put in question her right to peaceful assembly.

Taylor: Ms. Morton, I want to ask you about some protests you may have participated in against fish farms, and there is nothing wrong with that of course. You have participated in protests against fish farms at the farm site, haven’t you?

Morton: Yes.

Taylor: And you did that in a way that you and others got very close to the actual site and pens and/or may have gone into the site itself. 

Morton: No, we never go into the pens.

Taylor: I see. And you did that [did what? Morton just told him they didn’t do it] despite there being some signs that say No trespassing, quite prominent signs?

Morton: First of all, there were no signs at that farm. Second of all, it is actually illegal to put a No trespassing sign on a marine farm that has a license of occupation. Mainstream tried that for a little while, but they were told to remove them. So it was a temporary situation because it was unlawful.

As you have gathered from Alex Morton’s razor sharp responses in the various exchanges quoted above, Mr. Taylor did not fare as well as envisioned in his original game plan. After she absorbed the initial shock of such brutal attacks against her person, Morton began to fight back like a goddess. As the day went, and as the lawyer for BC took turns with Canada in attempting to unseat Morton, she took full control of the battlefield. She would detect the traps embedded in the questions a mile away, she would avoid them effortlessly. Nay, she would turn them right back against the examining lawyer like as many lethal boomerangs. If you have not seen Alex Morton on the witness stand this last Thursday, you do not know yet what a salmon warrior truly looks like. Such is the overwhelming power of shining and uncompromising truth.

Being a Frenchman, the historical reference that naturally jumped at me as I witnessed that extraordinary day was that of Joanne of Arc, and how during her trial for witchcraft she turned her interrogators into a bunch of half-witted jackasses with their pre-canned mechanical questions. All that these two women needed to do in order to overcome the sophists and Pharisees tasked with prosecuting them, was to provide some simple, luminous, painfully truthful answers which needed no other support but themselves. It is a bit frightening to see how the interrogation techniques in matters of the state have not changed much since the 15th century. It is reassuring to see that the manner to respond to such techniques have not really changed either. Just speak the truth and let its magic do the work.

In the end, and for all his misgivings, Mr. Taylor has rendered a valuable public service to the people of this country. By choosing to conduct his cross-examination of Alex Morton in the way he did, he has revealed the ugly face of state repression in action. Morton has dared to expose the collusion of the government of Canada and the fish farm industry? The government responds by attacking her personally and viciously, threatening her over her constitutional right to free speech and free assembly.

The service that Mr. Taylor provided was certainly not worth the $25 million that we have disbursed on this Commission, and frankly I dare not ask how much his personal invoice for mudslinging Morton will amount to. The final answer to the worthiness of this Inquiry will have to come from Justice Bruce Cohen himself. It was noted by some, perhaps as a sign, that at the end of the day Cohen personally thanked Alex for standing as a witness and ostensibly called her “Doctor Morton”.


Friday, September 2, 2011

The Lion

Photo Don Staniford.

Gregory McDade, Alexandra Morton’s lawyer, ruled the courtroom last week. He has reshaped the Cohen Commission’s most critical days – those dedicated  to salmon disease and aquaculture – in his own image. The dull and mostly meaningless proceedings of the previous months have been transformed in a series of short, sometimes brutal, always thrilling single combats between McDade and the “expert” of the moment sent by the DFO machine to counter him. Those will remain as the McDade days. Does it mean that the man succeeded in everything he has attempted at the Commission? Far from it. But he has sent some shattering shock waves through the system and set in motion a process of exposing the salmon-industrial complex, with deep ramifications that we can only begin to envision today.

Recently, I got in the habit of referring to McDade on my Facebook as “the Lion”. It’s pretty tacky, I know. But it captures my personal enthusiasm for the man and for what he embodies. For one thing, with his generous moustache and sometimes unclean shave, he physically looks like one. Then, he definitely acts like one. He sees every cross-examination as a hunt – albeit one for truth rather than for flesh – which requires impeccable preparation and methodical execution. Patiently, McDade asks. He waits, circles, retreats, gets to know and appreciate his prey as he identifies its weaker points. He knows from his long experience as a hunter that he has until the very last minutes of his allocated time to deliver the deadly strike. That weak point may emerge as insufferable self-infatuation as in the case of Dick Beamish, or shocking incompetence as in that of Michael Kent, or an excessive penchant for logical argumentation as with Josh Korman. But whatever that weakness is, Greg McDade usually finds it.

A classic illustration of McDade’s technique was his cross-examination of Dr. Michael Kent (ex-DFO, now professor of Microbiology at Oregon State University) over a report that Kent prepared for the Cohen Commission regarding pathogens. McDade proceeded in three successive strikes which each, taken individually, looked rather innocuous. But when he assembled them into a weapon, McDade delivered such a powerful blow to Kent’s credibility that subsequent witnesses to the Commission felt prudent to distance themselves from Kent’s work and name altogether. One. He established that the witness was primarily an expert in fish farm pathogens, rather than salmon pathogens in general. Two. He showed that Kent’s mandate with the Commission was to study all pathogens (both wild and farmed). Three. He demonstrated that Kent, contrary to both his field of expertise and clear mandate with the Commission, chose on his own accord to study only wild pathogens, inexplicably omitting those found in the fish farms. McDade didn’t openly say that the witness was guilty of dereliction of duty, but that’s pretty much the message that the audience received:

McDade: Let's just be clear. You didn't spend any time studying the role of fish farms in the causation of disease.

Kent: I disagree.

McDade: Did you look at the fish health database?

Kent: Which exhibit is that one?

McDade: That's the actual spreadsheets and reports and  fish health auditing that the fish farms make to the Province around fish health. Did you look inside those documents?

Kent: I scanned them, there are quite a few. These are Excel sheets, right? I looked at them, they came to me quite late. I actually reviewed them this morning. I scanned them pretty extensively but I didn’t get through them at all in all sorts of detail.

McDade: Did you have them when you did your report?

Kent: No I didn’t.

McDade: wouldn't that be relevant to your report, if there are diseases that are all over those spreadsheets?

Kent: They would be useful. It’s not peer reviewed literature, but they would be useful.

McDade: What’s the distinction from peer reviewed literature?

Kent: It’s then validated by professionals. But it would be of use, but I – given the limitations that I had with my time, the most useful data were peer reviewed papers for the study.

McDade: And so DFO hasn’t studied the matter, and there is no peer review paper on it, and so for you, it didn’t exist?

Kent: No. I said it has less significance to me.

Another beautiful example was McDade’s cross-examination of Dr. Josh Korman, who wrote a report to the Commission on mortality rates observed in fish farms. Korman definitely loves the mathematical music of a logical argument, and that translates into a natural repugnance for intellectual dishonesty, unlike so many of McDade’s other customers at the Commission. McDade exploited that characteristic masterfully on a critical point involving the discovery that Chinook fish farms may have been directly linked to the recent ups and downs of the Fraser sockeye:

McDade: So the Conville Bay farm was experiencing problems with symptoms that at least some thought was marine anemia. But what I was asking was this: if  there were Chinook farms experiencing marine anemia in the Discovery Islands in 2007, but none at all in 2008, would that not be a significant matter that you would want to investigate? And that is the information that I get off of those spreadsheets.

Korman: Yeah, that does line up with that pattern that you described. There are so many steps to determine that this was actually a big factor, right? Does that disease transmit? Does it cause death? All those steps we have been talking about. But certainly, it’s a hypothesis that is not unreasonable.

I came across a photo taken at this week’s salmon warriors rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery (the one posted on this blog) and I immediately went: that’s him – that lion is Greg McDade. A friend I showed the picture to remarked ironically that it was quite the lion indeed! with a rope tied around its neck. I shrugged that comment off by saying that no picture ever perfectly captures the essence of its subject.

The photo, I was to discover the next day, rope and all, was perfect. I had been acquainted with McDade’s professional expertise and class in a courtroom. I had not yet witnessed his personal courage when placed in a hostile environment. This was revealed to me last Wednesday when McDade rose to cross-examine four critical witnesses with veterinarian expertise. He started by pointing out that the employers of each witness were either the government or a fish farming corporation. He then added:

McDade: So I take it that all of you gentlemen are supporters of the status quo. 


McDade: Let me ask that question differently. There is no one here that is an independent expert from the government and companies as to the structure. 

One of the witnesses: Maybe you should define “independent”?

McDade: I just want to make a statement, Mr. Commissioner, that the choice of experts for this important panel on disease is missing any expert who can comment in opposition to the current structure. But we’ll work with what we’ve got, even if it’s working with one hand behind our back. 

Counsel for the Commission: The hearing plan has received Mr. McDade’s endorsement, so we will take that point, but I think it should be understood in  that light. 

McDade: Well, the experts that we asked to call have not been called. You are not suggesting that we haven’t asked for other experts to be called?

Counsel for the Commission: No, certainly I have not suggested that. But the final hearing plan is one that has received, to differing degree, either support – or at least no objections – in the way of applications. 

That was quite a way to start a cross-examination for a lawyer, to directly incriminate the very Commission that you are addressing! McDade had a very solid point, no question about it, one which had been eloquently echoed by Alexandra Morton in her blog that same morning. But to say in Justice Cohen’s face that, like the lion in my photo, he had to work with a hand tied behind his back? It was risky, it was bold, it was brilliant.

Like the Borgs in Star Trek, his opponents had adapted to McDade’s weaponry after only a few shots. They had been carefully briefed on how to dodge his questions by bouncing him back and forth from one “expert” to the next (I am no expert in this matter, but you should address this question to Dr. X who is not here today.) McDade knew he was not going to get anything out of that panel – especially under the ridiculous time constraints imposed by the Commission, as explained in Alex Morton’s blog. So McDade-the-lawyer went political. Lost for lost, let’s get something out of this day. The Cohen Commission, he implied on public record, is an integral part of the “current structure” and actively assists in the perpetuation of  the “status quo”. Dodge this.

McDade’s credit rating with the Cohen Commission must have dropped by a few notches after that sortie. But he also scored a perfect AAA with those sitting in the public gallery. We roared with pleasure at his statement. Gregory “The Lion” McDade is in synchrony with the public sentiment over this whole Cohen Commission charade, and the $25 million that it is costing the taxpayer. I personally expect nothing to come out of Justice Cohen’s recommendations. But I do expect a hefty political backlash to hit “the structure” and shake it in its core. And that will be worth the price of admission of having to sit in silence and listen for hours to the endless lies of this elitist bunch of dorks.

Greg McDade, you have our gratitude for saying out loud what we have been carrying in silence for all those months.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Kristi’s choice

Dr. Kristi Miller (Head, Molecular Genetics, DFO). Photo Globe and Mail.

Reckless sabotage. Bureaucratic harassment. Financial starvation. A quasi-religious resistance to novelty. And a good dose of incompetence.

That is the mix that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has prepared for Kristi Miller, with the incredible result of bringing her critical research on salmon anemia to a complete halt. Or so we learned this past week at the Cohen Commission. As I write these lines, Kristi Miller’s research is fully stalled, with no money allocated to it and no clear indication on how long it may take to get it moving again.

How did they stop it? By using what scientists living at the top of the intellectual food chain do best: a mind game. Consciously or not (that part remains to be seen), senior management and high-ranking scientists of this bureaucracy have blocked Miller’s work by using a circular argument which holds in 4 simple statements:

1. We don't know that there is a disease.
2. We won't take any action until we know that there is a disease.
3. We make sure that our scientist cannot find whether there is a disease.
4. Therefore, we don't know that there is a disease.

We don't have hard evidence of a pathogen affecting wild salmon, Dr. Michael Kent (ex-DFO, currently Professor of Microbiology at Oregon State University) stated on the Commission’s witness stand. Without more research, it is purely speculative to say that the virus uncovered by Kristi Miller was a significant factor in the 2009 collapse, said Dr. Kyle Garver, Research Scientist at DFO. Some of the interpretations and assumptions that Miller makes in her research may be speculative or overreached, said Dr. Christine MacWilliams, senior fish health veterinarian at DFO. (A stunning comment given that MacWilliams did not feel it was necessary to explain what she meant by that.)

To some extent, Kristi Miller herself adheres to such views about her research, notwithstanding the personal and unsubstantiated attacks carried by some of her colleagues. She agreed that there is no conclusive evidence yet linking virus to disease, or fish farms to wild salmon. But there are some pretty good indications that this may indeed be the case, “a smoking gun” as she put it to the Commission. There is a distinct genomic signature found in the Fraser sockeye, there is a virus which may be linked to that signature, there is evidence of anemia and leukemia in many infected wild salmon, and there is a dramatic decline in the sockeye population in the Fraser. And so, one may conclude, there is ample and urgent justification for pursuing Miller’s research forward at DFO’s earliest convenience.

Given the promising and novel nature of Miller’s findings and level of interest it has generated in the scientific community at large – her research was recently published in the journal Science –, the amount of resistance she has encountered at DFO from her own colleagues and management is staggering. In 2009 for example, Kristi Miller prepared a memo to her senior management alerting them over the “potentially devastating impacts” of the discovered disease on the sockeye. Dr. Kyle Garver, who was asked to review the memo, attempted to water down its contents. Alexandra Morton’s lawyer, Gregory McDade, asked Garver about this particular incident during a cross-examination at the Cohen Commission:

McDade: When a senior scientist at your department says “potentially devastating impacts”, that's a significant finding for you, is it not?

Garver: I'm sorry – for me?

McDade: What I am trying to get here is a sense of what level of certainty you need about a potentially devastating impact to the sockeye salmon to actually take action, rather than more studies. How far do we have to go in proof?

Garver: We’re following a scientific approach, so we need to establish that this sequence is indeed causing a disease.

McDade: And you are not prepared to recommend an action to your senior people at DFO until you’ve done all of these laboratory studies and have found proof to your satisfaction?

Garver: Until I find that this virus is causing disease, and that it is indeed transmissible, then I probably would not recommend action at this time.

The resistance to Miller’s findings at DFO did not always follow a strict scientific approach either, and sometimes verged on the irrational or even the supernatural. In a memorable meeting, for example, Dr. Christine MacWilliams explained to Kristi Miller that all possible pathogens affecting sockeye had already been discovered and that, therefore, there was no room for any “novel undescribed” pathogens. Science, MacWilliams was telling Miller, had ended its journey. There was nothing else to discover. We, at DFO, already hold all the knowledge that there is to hold. Search no more! All truth has been revealed. Another colleague, according to Miller, stated to her that he “did not believe that marine anemia truly exists”. As if the existence or nonexistence of such diseases was a matter of faith, rather than scientific observation.

Confronted with such a wall of resistance, Kristi Miller, a pragmatic person, decided to change her tack. They wanted a causal viral agent linking her genomic signature to an actual disease before she could pursue this further? Okay then, she’d focus her work on identifying that causal (or etiological) agent. So in 2009 she went to DFO management and to Genome BC, her major funder, asking for funding to identify the etiological agent. But they didn’t like it, Miller explained, “because our scientific advisory board wanted to keep the program as we had originally proposed”. So her funding request was denied. Talk about a catch 22. We won’t support your research because we don’t see a causal agent in there. But we won’t allow you to refocus your research on finding that causal agent either, because that’s not what had originally been proposed!

Another incident. In early 2011, Miller explained, the fish farm industry showed some signs of openness and agreed to go ahead with testing their Atlantic salmon. “But I was told later by one of the vets from one of the companies that they were advised against doing the testing by someone from DFO. So that’s as far as it went, I did not test the [farmed] fish for the signature.” Miller subsequently discovered that the person – or one of them, at least – who had killed her testing program with the industry was Christine McWilliams. Her again. What a drag, that woman. In a following meeting, according to Miller, McWilliams told in her face that “if we were to ask industry to voluntarily submit fish for testing, [she] would recommend to them that it would not be in their best interest to comply.”

Loud gasp in the Cohen Commission’s audience. But we were not done gasping yet, far from it. Shortly after came the bombshell previously mentioned: that Kristi Miller’s current funding to conduct her research on the Fraser sockeye has been reduced to, well, zero. My group is not the only one in this situation, there are several others, Miller quickly added coming to DFO’s rescue. Bu then, as if engaged in some dark inner battle with herself, she made the following comment: Well of course my group is the only large one in this situation. I have eleven people on my staff, whereas all other affected groups have one or two people at most.

It was also revealed during the same session that, just as Miller’s Science paper was being published, an order came straight out of Stephen Harper’s office banning her from addressing the media or any outside scientists. The pretext invoked for such an outrageous decision was a meaningless technicality involving a disagreement about some acronyms in the media lines. Again, Miller made a feeble and unconvincing attempt to shield her bosses: I was not the only scientist covered by that ban, she explained to the Commission. Well no, Ma’am, you were not. But you sure were the only one being published in Science that next morning.

What was very troubling in this incident, in addition to Harper’s direct intervention in a purely scientific matter, was that Miller’s senior management at DFO dropped her like a rock in this instance. The counsel who was conducting the cross-examination asked Miller:

Q: So we’re just on the eve of the publication of your paper in Science. Essentially, you have a very important paper that’s being published in a very prestigious journal, and media are contacting you, and you are being told by Dr. Richards [Miller’s boss] that you have to go to Ottawa to get approval to talk to the media. Is that correct?

A: Yes, absolutely.

This complete let-down of Miller by her management on the eve of a pretty significant day in her career was confirmed in an email, in which Dr. Richards wrote: “I understand your concern, but unfortunately there is nothing they [the PM’s communications office in Ottawa] can do.” Read: Unfortunately there is nothing I am prepared to do. If Richards had tried something – anything – to correct this awful situation, the email she wrote to Miller would no doubt have referred to it. But no, nothing. Just this one-liner.

A final cause for audience stupor in Kristi Miller’s testimony was this. In March 2011, a meeting was organized at DFO to brief Dr. Richards in preparation for her testimony in front of the Cohen Commission. The object, essentially, was to tell Richards what to say and not to say to Justice Cohen. At the meeting were present representatives from both Marine Harvest (the world’s biggest fish farm corporation) and the BC Salmon Farmers Association (the front group for the fish farm industry in BC). Miller must have sensed that there was something pretty stinky about such people sitting in such a meeting, because she said what sounded like two big fat lies to many people in the audience: (a) I was not aware that those industry people were at the meeting and (b) I don’t remember whether Dr. Richards was in attendance. I paused for a moment. Why in the world would Miller “forget” whether her boss what at that meeting or not? Was she trying to cover her again?

To see Miller defend the very people and bureaucratic machinery which are sabotaging her work recklessly on a daily basis was very troubling. Another extraordinary example of this Mother Theresa attitude was given when the counsel read to Miller a transcript in which her own boss, Dr. Richards, stated that Miller had “misrepresented” her words in regards to her being muzzled. Even though her boss was attacking her directly on public record, Miller gave the following angelical response:

Q: You would not agree that this is a misrepresentation of what you heard from Dr. Richards, would you?

A: What I would have not known at the time was whose decision it was [to muzzle me]. As I learned through the inquiry process, the decision not to allow me to speak to the press came out of the privy council office, not from DFO.

Many members of the activist community have spontaneously embraced Kristi Miller as a folk hero. And she is no doubt a heroic figure. She is interested in scientific truth, and she also departs from the DFO dominant culture in that she does appear to see scientific research as a means for solving human problems, such as the precipitous decline of the sockeye. She also shows a great degree of humanity, often expressed in the form of genuine frustration towards the DFO bureaucracy. And she displayed a high level of personal honesty and integrity in the vast majority of her responses. But she is also a product of the system, a DFO scientist raised and bred like all others to follow the same unwritten code of conduct. The prime directive of that code, of course, is that you never publicly criticize the agency no matter your grievances, that we are a family, that we solve our issues internally.

So she is a hero yes, but a tragic one. One which is stuck between two worlds: that of independent, unfettered, outcome-oriented research, and that of the self-serving bureaucracy which sees research as a means to its own perpetuation. Attempting to belong to both worlds, but unable to do so, Miller runs the risk of being part of neither. But does she have a choice?

As Meryl Streep in the classic film Sophie’s Choice, Kristi Miller has to choose between the child that she has grown and nurtured for so many years (her research on salmon anemia), and her oppressive and abusive mother, the DFO. She also has to deal on a daily basis with the growing hostility of her numerous siblings in that highly dysfunctional family, her fellow researchers, who don't understand what the hell is wrong with the rogue sister, why can’t she just be like the rest of us?

The fact that Kristi Miller has not yet given up on scientific truth, in spite of the incredible and often very personal pressures she has been enduring, is a tribute to her character and moral integrity. But how much longer can she last in such a toxic environment?

Resources and action items:

Week 1 Review of the Cohen Commission: The Skeletons Rattling in Cohen’s Closet. To get all the facts that emerged at the Commission this week, referenced with their sources.

Alexandra Morton's blog. To get the analysis.

 Dr. Kristi Miller's Testing Fund: *ACTION* Wild salmon supporters raising the $18,700 needed by Dr. Kristi Miller to test farmed Atlantic salmon for diseases and viruses. That amount was denied by DFO.

Wild Salmon Warrior Rally: *ACTION* Vancouver Art Gallery, Tuesday August 30, 2011