B.C. aquaculture industry threatens extinction of wild salmon

By Lloyd Dolha

Despite the findings of a study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Alberta and Dalhousie University condemning the growth of parasitic sea-lice from open-pen fish farms, Pat Bell, minister of Agriculture and Lands, said BC salmon farmers are doing a good job meeting the “standards of the day” for controlling sea lice infestations and protecting the environment.

On December 14, 2007, one of the world’s foremost scientific journals, the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science, published a study that concluded sea lice from salmon farms have been driving a rapid decline in wild pink salmon populations in the Broughton Archipelago off Vancouver Island.

The study, based on 36 years of fish survival data collected by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, concludes that 99 per cent of the wild pink salmon population will be gone in fours years, or two generations, if sea lice infestations continue.

Conducted by a team of six biologists, fisheries scientists and mathematicians, from the University of Alberta and Dalhousie, the study was based on the number of pink salmon returning to some 71 rivers on the central coast of British Columbia from 1970 to 2006.

The researchers then organized the data into four groups according to whether or not the populations were exposed to salmon farms before and during the sea lice infestations, and calculated population growth rates for each group. It is the first study of its kind to demonstrate the impact of sea lice infestations on wild salmon populations and reveal their pending extinction.

“In light of these results, it is clear that governments must take immediate precautionary action to stop open net-cage salmon farming from harming wild salmon,” said Jay Ritchin, a marine conservation specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation. “The evidence continues to be published in the most respected scientific journals and the B.C. legislature’s own Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture has called for a transition to closed systems.”

Minister Bell said the B.C. aquaculture industry, with nearly 3,000 direct and indirect jobs and annual sales of $300 million, is subject to “the toughest standards in the world.”

“There is no industry that is more publicly reported that the aquaculture industry,” said Bell.

Bell made those comments on Tuesday, January 8th, when he released a pair of 2006 reports on fish farm inspections and the health of farmed salmon through inspections of 60 to 80 active salmon farms . The reports showed fish farms generally complying with provincial regulations, and demonstrated sea lice numbers below the accepted level in most areas that year.

Now, with the fish farm industry coming under increasing scrutiny, Minister Bell acknowledged that those standards can evolve in months to a higher level of protection for wild stocks.

“We really are confident that the industry is meeting the standards of the day,” he said. “Those standards can, of course, change over time.”

Bell said the B.C. government continues to work with First Nations, fish farmers and environmental organizations to develop a provincial aquaculture plan. The plan, which was due to be released last fall, is now expected at the end of March and will stress the protection of wild salmon stocks.

“What the standards will be in the new aquaculture plan, I am not going presume,” said the minister.

Sea lice are natural parasites that feed on salmon skin, muscle and blood. In high numbers, they cause viral or bacterial infection leading to stress or osmotic failure or disturbed water balance, and ultimately death. Numerous studies have shown that where there are no fish farms, wild salmon have almost no lice. Fish farms, however, amplify the parasite on wild salmon migration routes. In the Broughton Archipelago, the wild juvenile must run an 80 kilometre gauntlet of over 60 fish farms before they make it to the open ocean. Critics scoffed at the report, saying the encouraging report card is a “red herring.

The article’s authors said sea lice infestation rates are 70 times higher among juvenile pink salmon from seven rivers in the vicinity of central coast fish farms, compared with fish whose natal streams are more remote, and the mortality rate among infected fish is “commonly over 80 percent.”

The report also notes that the impact of fish farms is far higher than that caused by commercial fisheries. Not only are the salmon and the ecosystem at risk, so too are the economies and cultures that depend on wild salmon.

“The region needs to have the source of the sea lice infestations removed,” said Ritchin. “We must get the open-net cage salmon farms out of the way of the juvenile salmon and ultimately into closed tanks.”