The fish doctor is in
October 30, 2023
By Mari-Len De Guzman
Dr. Gary Marty is taking on the threat of ‘imaginary fish diseases,’ one conversation at a time
In his long career in the public sector, Dr. Gary Marty has had his share of personal attacks. And he understands why.
“One thing I realized is that if people cannot attack your science, then they will attack your reputation,” said Marty.
For 19 years, Marty worked as a diagnostic fish pathologist at the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture’s Animal Health Centre (AHC). Marty and his colleagues at the AHC were among only a handful of board-certified veterinary pathologists in Canada who specialize in fish.
In 2017, Marty found himself in the middle of an investigation after certain anti-salmon-farming groups and individuals accused him of a conflict of interest when providing diagnostic pathology service to salmon farms.
“Part of my job profile was to serve both our government auditing and surveillance program and direct submissions from industry,” Marty recalled.
The then head of B.C. Public Service Don Wright was tasked to initiate an independent review and subsequently engaged audit firm Deloitte to perform an independent assessment of the AHC’s policies, procedures and controls related to ethics and conflicts of interest.
In its final report, Deloitte found no evidence of financial or technical conflict of interest in the diagnostic activities of the AHC. The report even went further to say the AHC operates at the “highest levels of quality, both in terms of the depth and experience of scientists and veterinary pathologists on staff.”
Those findings were not surprising to Marty, as he was confident of the integrity of his work. As a veterinary doctor, he said he bears the same responsibilities as any medical professional – whether as a doctor for humans or animals.
“As a B.C. Public Service employee, I’m required to be impartial. I need to accept and provide medical services, my diagnostic services, to anybody who needs them, regardless of who pays. It would be like a physician asking if you’re an NDP (New Democratic Party) or Liberal supporter and refusing to treat you because you’re one or the other; that would be considered unethical (in the) medical profession,” Marty explained.
In addition to this ethical responsibility, Marty deems it is his obligation to educate the public on matters of animal health. The attacks on his reputation that he endured during his time at the AHC only solidified his intent to continue this quest even after he retired from public service in June 2023.
“Not all veterinarians will take on this responsibility themselves. But they do have a responsibility to refer to someone who is equipped to do that, and I’m quite happy to take referrals to help people,” he said.
Even at a young age, Marty has always been interested in fish. That fascination led him to pursue fisheries as a field of study, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife biology. During his first year of undergraduate studies, Marty had an opportunity to work in the pathology department of a veterinary school. It was where the path leading him to become one of Canada’s experts in fish pathology was forged.
“At the time, I was not actually aware that fish got diseases. But they said I could be an expert on that, and that sounded very intriguing to me. So I looked into it. And sure enough, fish do get diseases just like all other animal populations; they have viruses, they have bacteria, they have parasites. And there’s lots of opportunities to understand those organisms and improve fish health,” Marty said.
Seventeen years later, Marty’s training as a fish pathologist was complete, armed with a master’s degree in fish biology, a PhD in comparative pathology, a degree in veterinary medicine, and board certification in anatomic veterinary pathology.
He joined the B.C. provincial government as a diagnostic fish pathologist in 2004, and for the next 19 years, he would spend much of his time analyzing and testing diseases in fish, both wild and farmed.
In addition to his work at AHC, Marty maintains an appointment as a research associate at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, and is an adjunct faculty at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in the University of Saskatchewan. In 2020, Marty was recognized as an Outstanding Reviewer for the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.
“My specialty is fish pathology, diagnosing disease, and also putting into context how it can impact at the population level. So not just individual fish diagnosis, but also taking those diagnoses and applying them scientifically, at the population level. Of course, that’s helped me a lot in dealing with some of the questions about interactions (between) farmed salmon and wild salmon,” Marty said.
To date, Marty has co-authored 59 peer-reviewed scientific publications, one of which was a 2010 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found no statistical correlation between sea lice levels on salmon farms and the lifetime survival of wild pink salmon populations. That study included an analysis of fish production data spanning 20 years and 10 years of sea lice counts from every salmon farm in B.C.’s Broughton Archipelago.
Sea lice in salmon farms and their effect on migrating wild salmon population have been the subject of much debate within and outside the scientific and aquaculture community. Thirteen years after Marty’s 2010 study on sea lice and pink salmon was published, the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, which coordinates the scientific peer review and science advice for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, released a similar finding that there is “no statistically relevant association” between sea lice on farmed salmon and sea lice levels on wild juvenile salmon in B.C.
These kinds of findings do not fly with anti-salmon farming activists and some members of the scientific community. They, too, claim there is evidence that suggests salmon farms are detrimental to wild salmon populations.
Marty is always up for a good discussion on fish disease and fish health, but the conversation should be premised on the evidence.
When it comes to infectious diseases in salmon farms, decades’ worth of data show that only three per cent of B.C.-farmed Atlantic salmon in any given year die of infectious diseases. Therefore, if the infectious disease is not spreading in the farms, the threat to wild salmon is even less, Marty said. And this is the message he intends to convey to those wanting to know more about fish diseases in both wild and farmed populations.
Immediately after Marty’s retirement from B.C. Public Service, he started a private consulting firm providing senior fish pathology expertise in communications, teaching, diagnostics and research. Of these, Marty considers communications as his most important task ahead – another soldier taking on the fake news machinery, one conversation at a time.
Marty also hopes that by being part of educating future veterinary professionals, he is doing his share in building a new generation fish pathology experts who are not just adept at the science but also equipped with the skills to effectively communicate the science to a broader audience.
When asked what the biggest threat to the B.C. aquaculture sector is, Marty replies: It’s the threat of imaginary diseases.
“The challenge we get is when that imagination starts to drive public policy, especially in the area of fish diseases, or fish health,” said Marty. “The frustrating part for me is that the imagination is getting more press than the evidence.”
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