Government-funded group switches sides on risks of fish farms

Pacific Salmon Forum now agrees sea lice are killing salmon

In a major blow to British Columbia’s salmon farming industry, a government-funded research group says it now accepts a recent scientific study that warns of mass extinctions of wild pink salmon on the central coast due to salmon farming.

In an uncirculated “communique” obtained on Friday by The Vancouver Sun, the Pacific Salmon Forum has acknowledged that sea lice infestations contributed to plummeting pink salmon populations in the Broughton Archipelago from 2001-2005—as noted in a recent article in Science, a leading international research journal.

The article by Martin Krkosek, co-researcher Alexandra Morton and others, drew international attention. It warned that wild pink salmon could be extinct within four years on the B.C. central coast due to sea lice infestations arising from salmon farms in that area.

The article was condemned by B.C. salmon farmers who said it was motivated by opposition to the industry rather than pure scientific research.

Initially, the forum also criticized the article—suggesting it was overstating the gravity of the situation—and announced in a news release on December 18 that it was inviting the authors for a meeting at forum headquarters in Nanaimo to discuss its findings.

That meeting took place Thursday and has apparently prompted the forum’s science advisory committee to soften its stance.

A forum communique dated Feb. 7 and passed along to the Sun on Friday by Watershed Watch Salmon Society expresses “general agreement” that future pink salmon extinctions will depend on “future management regimes.”

In other words, Watershed Watch executive director Craig Orr noted in a telephone interview on Friday, it’s up to government fisheries managers to decide the extent of the impact on wild salmon.

“That is really crucial for sure. It means, what the hell are we going to do?” Orr said.

Watershed Watch has been recommending the province compel salmon farmers to fallow, or leave vacant, any farm sites that lie along migratory routes for wild juvenile pink salmon emerging into the Broughton from their natal streams in the spring.

Last year, a provincial legislature committee studying fish farming also recommended the industry switch from open-net sea pens to closed-containment pens that would prevent lice infestations at farms from spreading to wild fish migrating in the vicinity.

Both recommendations have been ignored by the province.

“We’ve been asking for a fallow route. We’ve been asking for closed-containment [sea pens]. We’ve been asking for [Broughton salmon farmers] Marine Harvest to reduce their lice loads. Their vets fight us all the time on that,” Orr said.

“Does this mean the forum is throwing down the gauntlet to government to come up with an action plan? I don’t know.”

Morton said Thursday’s discussion among the forum’s science committee and the article’s authors was intense and seemed to reflect a pro-salmon farm bias on the part of the forum’s representatives.

“It was supposed to be just a look at the science. They were very reluctant to admit there were no flaws they could find with the paper,” Morton said in a telephone interview.

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