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‘Shockingly huge’ steelhead salmon escape fish farm, threatening B.C. lake

Massive farmed fishing threatening the food web of a Powell River lake
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Angler and fishing guide Pat Demeester holds an abnormally large and invasive farmed rainbow trout that has escaped into Lois Lake near Powell River, B.C. (Photo courtesy Pat Demeester)

By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Most B.C. fishing guides would be thrilled if a client pulled a 30-pound rainbow trout from the lake during an expedition.

But the scenario is cause for concern on Lois Lake, said Pat Demeester, who has been an angler and guide in the Powell River region on the Sunshine Coast for decades.

Massive farm-raised rainbow trout — marketed as sustainably raised Lois Lake steelhead — have been escaping from the AgriMarine aquaculture site into Lois Lake and adjoining Khartoum Lake, southeast of Powell River, he said.

Farmed fish — including salmon species in the past — have been escaping the facility for more than a decade, Demeester alleged.

But the scale of the problem has gotten out of hand in recent years, he stressed.

Huge populations of the alien trout threaten the lakes’ food web and are likely eating and competing with native fish species.

“A huge amount of these fish, meant only for aquaculture, are escaping into very sensitive cutthroat and Kokanee trout habitat,” he said.

“A client recently caught a 30-pound, one-ounce rainbow trout, and we catch fish over 20 pounds on a regular basis.”

Rainbow trout exist in two different forms in the wild. Steelhead, similar to salmon, migrate out to the ocean for two or more years before returning home to freshwater to spawn. The “rainbow” variety is typically smaller in size and remains entirely in freshwater.

Wild rainbow lake trout don’t normally grow beyond 40 centimetres and rarely exceed 10 pounds. Steelhead, with more access to food in the ocean, tend to grow larger, with the average ranging between five and 15 pounds, and trophy sizes closer to 20 pounds.

The farmed rainbows are a hybrid fish bred to grow quickly and have a voracious appetite, Demeester said.

They are also supposed to be sterile, but Demeester occasionally catches fish that are sexually active, posing a risk the farmed fish will interbreed with native cutthroat.

There are “swarms” of the farmed rainbow in the water, said Demeester, who said a group of anglers can catch huge numbers of the fish in short time spans.

The fish is likely consuming both insects and other smaller fish in the lake, such as sculpin or native herring-sized Kokanee trout. This reduces food for highly prized coastal cutthroat trout, if they aren’t being eaten by farmed fish, too, he said.

It’s not clear how many farmed fish have escaped over time or what the consequences have been to the lake’s ecosystem or even the farm’s owners, Demeester said, adding he’s repeatedly alerted the Department of Fish and Game at the B.C. Ministry of Forests as well as the aquaculture enforcement branch of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to the problem.

This year, Fish and Game proposed and enacted new regulations allowing anglers to catch and keep more of the invasive fish from Lois and Khartoum lakes in an effort to protect the unique population of cutthroat trout, which is listed as a provincial species of special concern.

DFO has reportedly conducted an inspection of the Lois Lake fish farm, but Demeester said he can’t get any concrete information about the results or penalties from any of the provincial or federal departments involved in regulating fish farms.

While the monster rainbows make for good sports fishing and most may be sterile, there are still real problems with large numbers of farmed fish, which are double the size of native species, “hoovering up” all the available food, he said.

“These things are eating machines, and we don’t even know how big they’re gonna get,” Demeester said.

“The question is, ‘What’s the damage to the ecosystem?’”

‘How is this allowed to happen?’

It also appears the AgriMarine fish farm on Lois Lake is operating illegally, said Stan Proboszcz, senior scientist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

Emails between staff at B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture and DFO in July 2021 noted AgriMarine wasn’t operating its semi-contained farm pens at its tenure site, the specific location authorized by the Ministry of Forests, documents obtained by the society through a freedom-of-information request show. At the time, AgriMarine was owned by Dundee Corporation.

AgriMarine was given 90 days to fix the situation, according to those documents, but it’s not clear what the outcomes of DFO’s tenure enforcement are, Proboszcz said.

Aside from seemingly being in the wrong location in the lake’s centre, the semi-contained pens are now close to shore, with large plastic piping from land reaching across the water to the farm site, he said. The black pipes on the lake’s surface are not marked or lighted in any way, posing a boating hazard, he said.

It’s hard to figure out what authorities are doing about concerns raised about the fish farm, Proboszcz said.

The B.C. Ministry of Forests did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

DFO did not respond to Canada’s National Observer’s interview requests or a number of questions about the Lois Lake AgriMarine operation. Instead, the department sent an emailed statement acknowledging it is aware of compliance concerns at the fish farm, which is currently under investigation.

“As this is an ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time,” the email said.

DFO did not provide information about when the investigation began, how long it is expected to take or why there is little publicly accessible information on the fish farm.

Differing responsibilities for regulating aquaculture are siloed across a variety of federal and provincial departments with seemingly little co-ordination or public transparency, Proboszcz said.

“I called a number of people about different things … and people just tell me to contact someone else,” he said.

“So, I feel like I’m getting the runaround.”

It’s also not clear who even owns the Lois Lake fish farm or how the company is accountable for its operations, he said.

Canada’s National Observer made several attempts to contact AgriMarine for comment about the Lois Lake fish farm at a number of different phone numbers, the company website and via email — none of which are in service.

DFO is the agency that is largely responsible for licensing, regulating and enforcement on fish farms, Proboszcz said.

Yet despite repeated fish escapes and tenure violations, the farm is still in operation, he said, noting he visited the site as recently as April 5 and the pens were still stocked.

“How is DFO and the aquaculture management and enforcement division allowing this to happen?” he asked.

You don’t even have to catch the escaped fish to see them in the lake, he added.

“We just sat there on the lake one time and we could just see them rolling on the surface,” Proboszcz said.

“They’re shockingly huge. It seems unnatural,” he added.

“I just worry about the massive impact they’re having on the lake ecosystem.”

READ ALSO: Fisheries Department confirms closure of 15 Discovery Islands salmon farms

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