Science Council Seeks Temporary Closure of Fish Farms

By Staff Writers

A new report released by the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (PFRCC), recommends the temporary emptying of fish farms at the northern tip of Vancouver Island to prevent doing “irreparable harm” to the wild pink salmon runs of the Broughton Archipelago.

The scientific council established by the federal government recommends that all of the 20 salmon farms of the Broughton Archipelago be emptied six weeks prior to the return of juvenile pink salmon in mid-April to prevent these salmon from being infested with sea lice that have plagued the salmon farms of the area in recent years.

“The PFRCC recommends that the time for action is now,” said the report released last November. “While recognizing that some may argue that more study be done prior to implementing any measures to protect juvenile pink salmon passage, the PFRCC concludes that such a strategy may lead to irreparable harm to the Broughton Archipelago pink salmon stocks.”

The council wants Heritage Aquacuture and Stolt Sea Farms, the two companies that operate the 20 farms to empty their pens to prevent the transmission of sea lice to pink salmon stocks.

“Pens have to remain empty for a full six to eight weeks. That will break the life cycle of the sea lice. Then as young salmon start moving out to sea, the pens could be restocked,” said council scientist Brian Riddell.

Earlier this year, only 147,000 adult pink salmon returned to spawn in the archipelago, compared to the 3.6 million that returned two years ago.

The dramatic drop is possibly due to the sea lice from the fish farms killing the young salmon.

The council, formed in 1998 to oversee the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), said that while there is no proven link between sea lice from the fish farms to the huge decline in wild salmon stocks, the evidence for such a link warrants a temporary closure of the farms.

Lack of evidence
Stolt Sea Farms vice-president Dale Blackburn said the council’s recommendation is premature and impractical. Blackburn said until there is a definite link between fish farms and the decline in wild stocks is established, Stolt has no plans to empty any of its pens.

“In a perfect world, if we had all the science and had the alternate sites to move to, and there was a direct link, yes we would do that,” said Blackburn. “But the fact of the matter is we don’t have the sites to relocate to and the science is by no means conclusive.”

Blackburn said Stolt prefers the council’s “higher risk option” that calls for a careful study of sea lice and the development and implementation of a sea lice control plan.

BC Salmon Farmer’s Association executive director Mary Wallin said in a press release that the association is prepared to work with the PFRCC to determine the cause of the decline in wild salmon stocks.

“Any sort of human activity poses some risk to nature. The key is to weigh those risks, reduce them as much as possible and manage them over time,” said Wallin.

DFO minister Robert Thibault, said the government will look at the report’s recommendations and take appropriate action.

Blood-sucking parasites
Sea lice are a blood-sucking saltwater parasite that attach to salmon leaving small, open lesions. Whereas it used to be common to have four or five sea lice attached, urgent alarms have rung now that up to 65 lice are being found on a single salmon.

Sea lice are the most serious problems facing the salmon farming industry worldwide. Outbreaks like the current one are associated with the dense crowding of salmon that occurs in net-cage farms.

The farms use bright lights at night to enhance growth and it appears that the lights are also fueling the rapid growth of sea lice. Wild salmon and other fish are attracted to the bright lights and this likely is increasing their exposure to the parasites on the farmed salmon.

Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist who has monitored the levels of sea lice in the Broughton Archipelago for the past two years called the council’s report “groundbreaking.”

Morton said that she holds out little hope for the government taking any real action, but said the report is visionary “because it addresses the biology of the situation and not just the politics.”

She hopes other interested stakeholders such as fishermen, environmentalists and First Nations will apply pressure to both Victoria And Ottawa to see that something is done.

“There are so many people wise to this now. But it’s only going to be through a concerted push by all of us that this will be a reality.”