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Virus may have killed Fraser River salmon, study says‎

Volcanic eruptions, giant squid and sea lice have all been invoked to explain the wild swings in British Columbia's famed Fraser River sockeye-salmon runs.

Now scientists are raising the possibility that a mysterious virus is responsible for killing huge numbers of Pacific salmon before they reach their spawning grounds.

"The mortality-related signature reflects a viral infection," a team of federal and university researchers reported Thursday in a study that tagged and tracked wild adult sockeye salmon, then biopsied their gill tissues.

The compromised salmon, which appeared to have a viral infection at sea -- a phenomenon study co-author Scott Hinch at the University of B.C. describes as "dead fish swimming" -- were 13.5 times more likely to die before spawning than healthy fish.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, does not identify a microbial culprit, but suggests the virus may be associated with leukemia and lymphoma.

"There is no doubt there is some form of pathogen involved," Hinch said.

But he says it's not yet known just what it is, when and where the fish are being infected, or how much other factors, such as the remarkable rise in river water temperatures seen in the past decade, are contributing to mortality.

Some observers speculate the virus may be linked to fish farms, but others say it could be a natural, but until now unrecognized, threat to Pacific salmon.

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