sea lice levels

Sea Lice Exceeds Threshold On 14 Salmon Farms

North Island Gazette, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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.

Exceed Sea Lice Levels In March

Mowi’s Shaw Point farm in Johnstone Straight reported 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 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 seems to come down to 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.” Typical treatments are medicinal baths, mechanical removal or a chemical treatments in the fish feed.

No Disciplinary Actions Taken

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

Stan Proboszcz, a fisheries biologist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society has a problem with the lack of action, 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 anytime, but have there been any examples of fines? I haven’t heard of any,” he said. 

Mowi’s Shaw Point farm

In Mowi’s Shaw Point farm, near Campbell River, motile counts bounced between six and eight per fish. Just three of its 11 reports were under the required three lice per fish. In its most recent publicized report, Mowi showed a count of 3.21 lice per fish at Shaw Point. 

The counts are from Jan. 1 and March 31. Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has not released more recent information. 

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

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

Sea Lice Can Drive Salmon To Extinction

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 problem is well documented, the threat is known, and yet action has been slow. 

Remove Discovery Island Salmon Farms

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. 

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. It’s a mistake scientists say threatens wild stock by competing for food sources, preying on wild salmon, and spreading disease. 

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. 

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 will only keep 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 did not make anyone available for comment. 

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 the Clayoquot Sound. 

“I’m afraid B.C. has a very entrenched industry that doesn’t want to change irrespective on the impacts on wild salmon,” said Proboszcz. 

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email:

Top photo credit: 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)

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