lice infected salmon fry

47 days until a decision must be made: sea lice and pathogens

As we get closer to June 30, when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has to decide whether to reissue the licenses for 79 British Columbian salmon farms, independent biologist Alexandra Morton points to yet more problems. 

A recent Global and Mail article revealed the existence of a decade old Department of Fisheries (DFO) report about the ‘transmission of the PRV virus from farmed to wild salmon.’

Morton said the fish farm industry has exceeded the three lice per fish threshold every week since the out-migration season began on March first. Two to five active farms have exceeded that limit every week, for the past five weeks. Morton claims that no sooner had the industry brought the lice on one farm under control, than another exceeds the limit. 

Photo above taken from Alexandra Morton’s video

“DFO recognizes that sea lice breeding on salmon farms is a threat to young wild salmon because in the conditions of license, they asked the industry to stay below three adult lice per farm fish to protect the young wild salmon,” she said.

A spokesperson for the BC Farmer’s Association emailed,” During the out-migration window, sea lice counts must be conducted within the first week of the window – and once every 2 weeks thereafter. The results of each counting event must be submitted to DFO by the 15th of the following month. If the sea lice count exceeds the threshold of 3 lice per fish, DFO must be notified within 48 hours – and a plan must be presented describing the sea lice management measures that will be undertaken to reduce sea lice levels below the threshold level within 42 days.”

Morton refers to this 42 period as a loophole in the regulations:

“You just need to get the lice down for one week and you can go over that limit for another 42 days.The second regulation completely cancels the effect of the first regulation, because there’s young, wild salmon beside almost every salmon farm on the coast right now. If you allow these dangerous lice levels to generate for six weeks, whole runs of young wild salmon will go by and become infected. These larval lice are spreading and they are infecting other farms.” 

She added, “To me, this is just another very clear example of the regulatory capture of senior DFO staff, which has put our wild salmon at extreme risk in favour of protecting the salmon farming industry.” 

Video by Alexandra Morton posted during week 5 of her sea lice count
Screenshot from Morton’s video “They said they had it handled!’
video posted by Alexandra Morton posted during week 3 of her sea lice count

Morton has been following the weekly sea lice reports that MOWI, Cermaq and Grieg post on their websites:

“They post their numbers every week for every farm because they really want this aquaculture stewardship certification, which says that the farm salmon are being produced sustainably. Restaurants want the certification, the public wants this certification and so the companies are forced to post their own sea lice counts on their websites. So I look at their data every week and since March 1st the number of farms (exceeding the threshold) per week has ranged from two to five,” said Morton.

The Farmer’s Association spokesperson emailed, “The rate of sea lice infestation changes from year to year on both farm-raised and wild salmon. This is directly linked to annual changes in wild host populations and environmental conditions.”

“Factors such as high numbers of Pacific herring, for example, can be correlated to elevated lice counts of C. clemensi on farm-raised salmon in the same region, at that particular time. Similarly, high wild salmon returns in the autumn months of one year can be correlated to elevated lice counts of L. salmonis in the following spring, for wild and farm-raised salmon in the same region.”

“Higher-than-average water temperatures and salinity are conducive to sea lice reproduction. Years with low snow pack or winter precipitation can create high temperatures paired with high salinity (due to decreased freshwater mountain run off), which is an optimal environment for sea lice to flourish.”

A University of Toronto study of the 2015 sea louse outbreak in the Broughton Archipelago, of which Dr Andrew Bateman was the lead author and Morton one of the contributors, listed four contributing factors: 

  1. “poorly timed parasiticide treatments of farmed salmon relative to wild salmon migration, 
  2. evolution of resistance to parasiticide treatments in sea lice, 
  3. anomalous environmental conditions promoting louse population growth, and 
  4. a high influx of lice with an abundant pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) return in 2014.”  

Another study, published last month, found that sea lice have developed a resistance to the principal treatment being used against them.

At that time  Brian Kingzett, Science and Policy Director for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, emailed Cortes Currents, “Industry has been aware that this was slowly happening for almost a decade.”

Screenshot from Cermaq Canada’s Sea Lice Reporting page – taken Saturday April 16 (in Morton’s week five) by Roy L Hales

Cortes Currents found four fish farms exceeding the limit when it checked the industry websites on April 16th: 

So what does this mean? For example, only one of the ten Cermaq farms is exceeding the limit. 

“It’s not so much that it’s one out of 10, but if you have say five farms lined up in Quatsino Inlet, It just takes one farm being over the limit for one week to infect all the juvenile salmon that are coming out that week. And juvenile salmon aren’t necessarily moving. The sockeye do, but the young pink and chum seem to move as far as they need to go to get a good meal and then they stop and invest in growing. They need to grow really fast to get away from the king fishers and the trout and the mergansers that are all really ready to eat them,” explained Morton. 

June 8 sunrise at Brent Island Farm, off the northern coast of Quadra Island – photo by Markus Fritsch, courtesy Cermaq Canada

She said what makes these farms especially deadly is they are placed directly in salmon migration routes.

“They crowd the fish together. They don’t let all the predators in. Nobody migrates, and so you cause these buildups of many different pathogens.  Then the young wild salmon go by and the way salmon breathe, of course, has they take water in their mouth and pass it over their gills. And so all of these pathogens, these high levels of industrial level pathogens, are passing over their gills, coming into direct contact with their bloodstream,” she said.

Morton added that this has long been known in Norway, where these salmon farm companies come from. 

She alleges that fish farms are generating dangerous levels of sea lice along a 450 kilometre stretch of BC’s coastline. 

“I’m not saying this is in any way their goal, but it is the perfect way to wipe out wild salmon,” she said. “It is like running sheep through sheep dip, or walking your child through the infectious disease ward in a hospital.” 

“Clayoquot Sound is just really painful to watch because the companies are basically playing sea lice whack-a-mole. They get a farm down, another one goes up. They get that one down, the first one goes up again.” 

The industry spokesperson emailed, “BC salmon farmers have invested millions of dollars in robust, innovative technology to mitigate and manage sea lice and are continuously looking at ways in which innovation can be adapted to improve overall operations. Examples include nearly $100 million invested over the last three years in new vessels designed to gently remove sea lice from farm-raised salmon through mechanical means, fresh water, or hydrogen peroxide baths. All these technologies effectively remove and capture lice and eggs for responsible disposal on land – removing them from the ecosystem and helping to lower the overall lice population in an area.”

Photo courtesy Clayoquot Action

Morton said these treatments are not working: 

  • Hydrolicers are supposed to  power wash the lice off fish, but ‘those of us doing research around these boats have found that they’re putting the lice right back into the water. There’s unprecedented numbers of juvenile lice coming out of these boats. So they’re reinfecting their own fish’
  • hydrogen peroxide baths pollute the ocean
  • fresh water baths are not working and some of the sea lice levels in Quatsino Sound tripled after the farms were treated.

Morton found that last idea particularly alarming. 

“if this industry trains the lice on this coast to be able to resist fresh water, what’s going to stop them going into the rivers and lakes and eating all the juvenile Steelhead, Trout, Chinook, Coho and Sockeye that spend a year in fresh water?” she said. “This is an incredibly dangerous thing they are doing.” 

Over the past two years, she has been observing a growing rift within the DFO. 

Back in 2010, Justice Bruce Cohen warned about the problem of asking DFO to both protect wild salmon and promote the industry.

“We’re definitely seeing divided loyalties and DFO created this monster called the aquaculture management division. It is well-populated, funded and in DFO filtering all the science that gets to the minister,” said Morton. 

Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders speaks out at the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on April 26th, 2021

She pointed to the DFO’s suppression of Dr Kristi Miller-Saunder’s 2012 study of the Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) virus among BC’s open net fish farms as an example.

Miller-Saunders,  a senior research scientist in salmon genetics at the DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, wrote The Globe and Mail, “It is really a travesty that the study could not come to light 10 years ago, and that the findings associated with this virus have been so contentious in Canada, as the role that this virus plays in disease development in salmon in other countries is not disputed.”

She aded,“Sequence epidemiology, similar to what has been done to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in humans, shows that the virus originated in Norway and spread to North America some 30 to 35 years ago, and is being actively transmitted between farmed and wild salmon in B.C.”

Morton said Miller-Saunders’ report ‘found massive red blood cell rupture in Chinook Salmon.”

DFO stated that they could not release the report, under the Aquaculture Collaborative Research and Development Program, because the authors disagreed about the conclusions. 

Morton believes that if DFO had acknowledged PRV was a disease agent, they would have been forced to act. 

When she took MOWI (then called Marine Harvest) and the DFO to court in 2014, “They told the court they would be severely impacted if they were prohibited from transferring ‘PRV infected fish’ into the farms. DFO also argued that PRV was local. It was an endemic virus on this coast; Pacific Salmon were adapted to it.”   

Video about Mordecai et al paper ‘Aquaculture mediates global transmission of a viral pathogen to wild salmon‘ (May 2021)

Dr Gideon Mordecai was the lead author of a paper that confirmed Miller-Saunders findings last year. 

He told Cortes Currents, “Our findings show that salmon farms are, indeed, a source of infection for wild fish. Viruses leave a genetic fingerprint. The genetic fingerprint shows that the same viruses that are on the farms are in the wild fish. All the evidence suggests that the virus is being transmitted from the farm to wild fish. I haven’t seen any evidence that says that’s not happening.”

The industry spokesperson’s response was to attack the credibility of scientific studies that “largely focused on viral discovery; they have failed to publish any scientific studies that investigate whether the viruses they discovered are actually threatening wild or farmed stocks.” 

She also emailed, “Any study considering the transmission dynamics between farmed and wild salmon should recognize that all young farmed Atlantic salmon entering the marine environment have been verified PRV-free. In other words, farmed Atlantic salmon do not introduce PRV to the marine environment. Rather, they acquire it during their ocean residency.”

Morton said, “I’m not sure the salmon farming industry is fully grasping  the consequences of this article making it onto the front page of the Globe and Mail. We have the fingerprints of your viruses. They are in the Skeena. They’re in the Fraser river. They are in juvenile Chinook Salmon all along the west coast of Vancouver island, near the salmon farms and it is killing them.” 

Morton is waiting to see if Joyce Murray, the Minister of Fisheries, will reissue ‘the last 79 salmon farm licenses on this coast’ on, or before, June 30.

According to her mandate letter, the Murray has to ‘work with the province of British Columbia and Indigenous communities on a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.’ 

Morton said she is not sure there will be any Chinook Salmon left in Clayoquot Sound by 2025. Runs that used to have tens of thousands of fish are now down to double digits. 

“I’m giving minister Murray the benefit of the doubt.  She hasn’t made her move yet and she hasn’t told us what she’s going to do, but we have so many wild salmon runs on the verge of extinction,” said Morton.

“What minister Murray has to do is tell them, ‘okay, no more brood-stock. No more eggs. You guys need to wind down.’ They need instructions to wind down.” 

She advises people in the salmon farming industry, “Start looking for another job. Start considering what you might do to protect yourself because when this industry goes down, I don’t think the companies are going to protect you. I hope the government does.”

Screenshot of lice infected salmon fry taken from Alexandra Morton’s video ‘They said they had it handled!

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