Sea lice outbreak in Clayoquot Sound draws fire from industry critics
Scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) brought reporters to a fish farm in the Okisollo Channel on Wednesday to showcase their fish health inspection techniques.
The outreach effort follows an outbreak of sea lice that’s bringing renewed scrutiny to the aquaculture industry.
“One of the goals of this is trying help people understand the work that we’re doing in the department, which I don’t think is well understood or broadly known,” said DFO senior aquaculture biologist Kerra Shaw, adding that extensive data about the industry is available on the department’s website.
The Okisollo Channel is located northeast of Quadra Island. Image from mapcarta.com
Scientists checked live salmon for abnormalities before removing dead fish from the water for a closer look.
“Basically I just see if there’s any cause of mortality, if it’s related to a predator, if it’s got any abnormalities on it,” said Howie Manchester, a senior fisheries biologist with the department.
“And then from there, I’ll choose fish that appear to be normal looking, and represent the population,” he said. “And then those fish, I will take for further analysis.”
Meanwhile, DFO aquatic science biologist Shawn Stenhouse was netting live fish from the pens and counting the parasites known as sea lice. DFO checks their sea lice numbers against figures provided by Marine Harvest, which runs the Okisollo fish farm.
Zachary Waddington, DFO’s lead aquaculture veterinarian for the Pacific region, explained that DFO officials were making sure Marine Harvest workers were “handling the fish in an appropriate manner, counting the lice accurately, classifying the lice accurately.”
The public outreach effort follows an unprecedented outbreak of the parasite this year. It took place in Clayoquot Sound during the out-migration period, between March and June, when wild juvenile salmon are making their way to the ocean.
That’s when the small fish are most vulnerable to the pest. In June, free-moving sea lice in the region exceeded 13 per fish; an abundance of just three lice per fish is considered high.
At least one farm was temporarily shut down by Cermaq, another major aquaculture company, and its fish were reportedly euthanized and turned into fertilizer.
“The scale and the degree [and] the number of farms affected [by the outbreak] was unprecedented to my knowledge in British Columbia,” said Waddington. “It was definitely highly undesirable.”
DFO scientists say the sea lice developed a resistance to a drug called Slice, which aquaculture companies put into fish food. When Slice doesn’t work, fish farms can pour hydrogen peroxide into the water, Waddington said.
But the use of the chemical requires a pesticide use permit from the province, and objections from area residents slowed down the process, Waddington said.
Living Oceans and the Raincoast Research Society, two environmental NGOs, said in a newly-released report that the outbreak is proof that aquaculture should be taken out of the oceans and placed in land-based containment facilities.
“What we’re seeing here is no ability to control the sea lice and this is happening everywhere in the world,” said Alexandra Morton, a prominent industry critic and co-author of the report.
She described DFO as the “government arm of the aquaculture industry,” and said the department has a poor track record on regulating fish farms.
“What happened in Clayoquot Sound is such stark evidence that it’s not working for the salmon farming industry and it’s not working for anybody who cares about wild fish,” she said.
Scientists from DFO said there’s no evidence that sea lice poses a serious risk to wild fish in B.C. – a claim that Morton disputed – but said that they will continue to monitor and research sea lice.