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Salmon Forum Loses Credibility as it Mires Itself in Wrangling

BRITISH COLUMBIA - The BC Pacific Salmon Forum was set up in December 2004 by Premier Gordon Campbell. The government-funded research body was to pull together bulletproof science that would settle long-running arguments over whether fish farms threaten wild salmon.

Instead, the forum is itself now wrangling with scientists whose conclusions about sea lice appear to differ from its own.

First: Craig Orr, of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. His evidence that reducing sea lice egg production on salmon farms coincided with lighter parasite loads on juvenile salmon was published by the North American Journal of Fisheries Management in 2007. Before that, Orr was commissioned by the B.C. Pacific Salmon Forum to survey research into sea lice interactions between farmed and wild salmon.

Second: Martin Krkorsek, University of Alberta, who once researched sea lice on a forum project. His 2007 paper in Science predicted extinction for wild pink runs in the Broughton archipelago if sea lice burdens on smolts passing fish farms are not reduced.

When that that story broke, a top-drawer public relations consultant urged media to note the significance of the forum's response. It said unpublished research doesn't support Krkor-sek's published conclusions, that there is "divided agreement" among scientists about Krkorsek's work and that it will meet him to "discuss" his study.

Third: Alexandra Morton, a contributor to Krkorsek's paper who is also researching sea lice infection rates for the forum. In a letter obtained by The Vancouver Sun, Morton objects to use of research still under internal review for a forum media release that she complains creates an impression that "does not accurately represent the condition of Broughton archipelago juvenile salmon."

The forum did not release Orr's 2006 report. A year later, a copy was leaked to Vancouver Sun reporter Scott Simpson. The report said scientific evidence indicated salmon farms play a role in sea lice infestations. It cited evidence farmed salmon are a source of lice infections much heavier on wild salmon captured within 30 kilometres of pens than on those captured farther away.

The forum told Simpson that Orr's survey was reviewed by the organization's science advisory committee and was not released because it "did not meet their rigour."

Yet a letter from the Vancouver law firm Goodwin & Mark to the forum on behalf of Orr says one science committee member provided a written review which suggested Orr's report was, indeed, rigorous. Orr, the letter says, spoke with a second member of the committee who agreed with that assessment.

The copy of the review of Orr's report that I saw says rather bluntly that the forum got what it asked for from the scientist and that "it's a fair review." It says Orr's survey identifies current and relevant research despite the limitations imposed by government and industry withholding data. It also answers the key question of whether Orr's survey considered and fairly represented the full range of opinions in the scientific literature with an unequivocal "YES."

This might all warrant a snicker as not-so-newsworthy squabbling over procedural minutiae among science specialists. But there is a broader context. It frames the importance of the forum's credibility.

The forum is important to both industry and environmentalists. It will prove useless if perceived as a captive of one faction or the other. So the process demands both transparency and an unassailable appearance of impartiality. This is essential if public trust is to be won. In the charged climate over wild salmon survival, public trust is crucial if policy advice is to be accepted by all stakeholders.

Source: Vancouver Sun