Sea lice on a juvenile salmon. “What’s an analogy … it’s like a beaver-sized parasite just chewing on me, and putting holes in my body,” Proboszcz said. (Tavish Campbell photo)

DFO says sea lice levels fine, but fish farm data shows otherwise

Self-reported fish farm data showed 14 farms with violating levels of lice

Data from fish farms around Vancouver Island show sea lice numbers exceeding Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s requirements of three per salmon at the start of this year’s juvenile salmon migration, sparking mitigation efforts by the farms.

Mowi’s Shaw Point farm in Johnstone Straight had the highest number: 20.94 sea lice motiles per fish reported on March 24. Grieg Seafood Inc. had the next four highest counts: 14.23, 11.98, 10.03 and 9.38 motile per fish reported at four of their farms in Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The counts are from Jan. 1 and March 31. Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has not released more recent information.

The DFO limit is three lice per salmon between March 1 and June 30, recognized as a vulnerable time for wild salmon migrating out to sea. The small fish swim past farms where they are exposed to sea lice, inadvertently hosted in fish farms.

This March, 14 farms self-reported lice counts higher than three. Yet, the DFO stated in an email to The Gazette that, “Sea lice in British Columbia during the 2020 outmigration (March 1 to June 30) have been controlled, with no facilities violating licence conditions.”

In a later email, the DFO spokesperson said, “It is a violation to go into March 1 with more than the three motile.”

The evaluation of violations involves the amount of time a farm operator has to bring lice levels back under three – 42 days. That’s roughly a third of the outmigration period time.

The DFO added that the three-motile limit is a “precautionary level designed to trigger a management action for treatment before any higher harm threshold is reached.”

Each of the farms that reported over-threshold amounts did take action to bring the numbers down. Typical treatments are medicinal baths, mechanical removal or a chemical treatments in the fish feed.

Shawn Hall, media relations spokesperson for BC Salmon Farmers’ Association, said sea lice levels seem to be high due to ocean conditions. It’s a salmon farmer’s responsibility to manage the infestation, but Hall noted that fish farmers do not have control of the sea lice populations in the ocean. They’re a naturally occuring parasite brought into farming and migration areas by wild adult salmon, he said.

No disciplinary action has been taken on the 14 farms that reported numbers over the threshold during March.

Self-reported data from fish farms, published by Fisheries and Oceans showing 14 farms above the threshold of three lice per salmon during the critical period of time when juvenile salmon are migrating past the farms to the ocean.

In Mowi’s Shaw Point farm, near Campbell River, motile counts dropped after mechanical lice removal treatment, but bounced up again by the next count. In early March, Mowi reported 0.95 motiles after mechanical removal, and then 8.67, 6.52, and 20.94 successively in the three weeks following. In its most recent publicized report from June, Mowi showed a count of 3.21 lice per fish at Shaw Point.

Hall said that with a mechanical treatment like Mowi was using at Shaw, there’s nothing to prevent lice from returning after treatment. A wild school of fish with lots of lice could swim by and transfer new populations of lice to the farm.

In June, an independent report showing high levels of lice on wild salmon was released by the B.C.’s First Nations Leadership Council. The leadership council called for all ocean-based fish farms to be closed, due to their negative impact on wild fish.

Stan Proboszcz, a fisheries biologist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society is troubled by the apparent lack of action from the DFO, and the amount of time farms are given to respond.

“There’s no impetus for the industry to change if there’s no fines or repercussions. DFO says they can take a licence away at any time, but have there been any examples of fines? I haven’t heard of any,” he said.

READ MORE: Sea lice outbreak in juvenile salmon prompts First Nations leaders to call for fish farm closures

The fish farming industry has long been criticized by wild salmon advocates and environmentalists for creating a potentially unsafe environment for wild salmon smolts migrating past the farms out to sea.

Proboszcz says scientific literature shows that “sea lice from salmon farms can drive wild salmon populations to extinction. That’s the big threat. Essentially, the farms act as amplifiers of lice. They pump sea lice out like a factory.”

The federal Cohen Commission, which investigated sockeye salmon declines in 2009, called for the removal of fish farms along the bottleneck region of the Discovery Islands near Campbell River by Sept. 30 of this year, if they are “found to pose more than minimal risk to Fraser River sockeye health.”

That’s where Shaw Point is, and where the independent report counted the highest rates of sea lice on wild salmon — 94 per cent of the sampled fish were infected, with an average of seven lice per fish.

“What’s an analogy … it’s like a beaver-sized parasite just chewing on me, and putting holes in my body,” Proboszcz said.

Also during this year’s outmigration, Mowi’s Shaw Point farm accidentally released 1,000 non-native, farmed Atlantic salmon in May due to a hole in the net.

READ MORE: Two B.C. First Nations call for fish farm removal from their territory

In December, Mowi also ‘released’ upwards of 20,000 farmed salmon into the ocean after a fire at their Robertson Island farm, directly north of Port Hardy. It is now inactive.

READ MORE: ‘Most’ Atlantic salmon in pen escape after fire at B.C. fish farm

Mowi recently announced its farms are certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. That organization requires certified farms to count sea lice levels weekly — among other measures — and to make the findings available to the public within a week. Mowi only keeps the most recent week’s count available to view online. Shaw Point, the farm with the highest numbers, is a brood farm where fish are grown past market size to maturity for Mowi to harvest eggs. It is not part of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council certification.

Grieg acknowledged in a statement that there have been higher than normal sea lice numbers in their Nootka Sound region. A new wellboat — a mechanical treatment procedure that puts the lice-ridden salmon in freshwater wells; salmon can adjust to freshwater but the lice fall off — was delivered just around the time that new COVID-19 measures were introduced. The new regulations, which unfortunately coincided with the outmigration period, delayed implementation of the treatment as crew had to self-isolate and develop new procedures allowing for social distancing.

The statement concluded by saying “…we are also researching the effects of installed partial-closed containment systems at two of our Sunshine Coast farms, which will trial the effects of reduced wild lice attaching to farmed salmon. With these advances, we hope to further decrease interactions between wild and farmed salmon. The timing of these challenges, as well as adapting new sea lice management tools, has created an anomaly year for Grieg’s Nootka farms – one we will learn from and improve on to be even better stewards of the environment.”

Cermaq, the third fish farm company around Vancouver Island, reported just three farms exceeding the three-motile limit: Bawden (4.19), Ross Pass (3.9) and Millar Channel (3.34) – all in Clayoquot Sound.

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca


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This story was updated July 22 to include comments from the BC Salmon Farmers’ Association and a statement from Grieg Seafoods.

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