Clayoquot wild salmon smolt with lice-tavish campbell

Salmon farm reapplies for three-year permit to dump sea lice pesticide in B.C. coastal waters

Cermaq has applied for a new permit to dump almost 3,000 bathtubs of a sea lice pesticide in Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve waters, as companies head to court to challenge a federal decision to terminate salmon farming in the Discovery Islands

The Norwegian salmon farming company Cermaq has applied for a new provincial permit to dump nearly one million litres of a sea lice pesticide into Clayoquot Sound waters, alarming a local conservation group that says the company’s current permit allows discharge near an important grey whale feeding area.

“Cermaq’s timing couldn’t be worse,” said Bonny Glambeck, campaigns director for Tofino-based Clayoquot Action. “Grey whales are just returning from Mexico, and their diet is tiny crustaceans. There are rare herring spawning nearby, and tiny juvenile wild salmon are just now emerging from the rivers.”

Glambeck said the active ingredient in the pesticide is hydrogen peroxide, which kills crustaceans and can persist for weeks in the environment.

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New science from Norway shows hydrogen peroxide is far more toxic to krill, a major dietary staple for grey whales, than previously thought, she said. Peroxide tends to pool in shallow waters — where herring and juvenile wild salmon rear in the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve region on the west coast of Vancouver Island, along with shrimp, crab and other crustaceans in their larval life stages.

In 2018, B.C.’s Environment Ministry granted Cermaq Canada a three-year permit to discharge more than two million litres of the sea lice pesticide into Clayoquot Sound waters on the west side of Flores Island, after 36,000 people signed a petition requesting the permit not be granted.

The new permit application from Cermaq, which owns 14 of 20 salmon farms in Clayoquot Sound, asks to discharge 903,240 litres of a sea lice pesticide over a three-year period starting April 19. That volume would fill almost 3,000 standard-sized bathtubs.

“Offshore Flores Island, in one of the spots where they’ve been dumping, is a really important feeding spot for grey whales, where there’s a type of crab and the mysid, another type of crustacean that the grey whales like to eat,” Glambeck told The Narwhal.

“Whether it’s a grey whale feeding area or they do it up the inlet, these are still biologically rich waters, here in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Up the inlets we have shallow bays and estuaries where young salmon are just coming out of the rivers and they’re rearing there, as well as herring. This is the time of year when a lot of different species go into their molting … things like prawns and Dungeness crab and other types of crab. And this pesticide is very, very deadly to these types of creatures.”

grey whales seen from a bird's-eye-view

Grey whales migrate from Mexico to the waters off the B.C. coast in the spring. Clayoquot Action’s Bonny Glambeck is concerned pesticides used by Cermaq to remove sea lice from salmon farmed in open-net pens may harm creatures grey whales feed on. Photo: Clayoquot Action

Read more: War on the waters: salmon farms losing battle with sea lice as wild fish pay the price

In its application, Cermaq notes the pesticide bath requires fish to be seined and pumped into a well boat where they will be “held in the required concentration of Paramove for 30 minutes.”

“The treatment bath inside the boat will then be neutralized with additional seawater, filtered to remove all detached sea lice and egg strings and discharged. The fish will then be pumped out of the well boat and back into the net cage,” the application states.

In an emailed response to questions, B.C.’s Ministry of Environment said hydrogen peroxide is considered “a safe pesticide option for sea lice treatment as it breaks down very quickly and does not have lingering effects,” noting the pesticide is fully registered for use in Canada.    

The ministry also said it has instructed Cermaq to start public consultations and First Nations engagement, and there is no specific timeline for a decision on the permit application.

According to an incident report filed with Health Canada, in 2011, more than 13,000 farmed Atlantic salmon were killed at an east coast fish farm after a well boat treatment that used Paramove 50. In Norway, 126,000 farm fish died in 2016 during delousing treatment, an event fish farming company SalMar said was likely due to overexposure to hydrogen peroxide.

An aerial view of a Cermaq's Fortune Channel salmon farm

An aerial view of a Cermaq’s Fortune Channel salmon farm in Clayoquot Sound. Photo: Clayoquot Action

Cermaq seeks judicial review of open-net pen salmon farm phase-out in Discovery Islands

Cermaq’s permit application comes as it seeks a judicial review of the federal government’s recent decision to phase out open-net pen salmon farms in the Discovery Islands near Campbell River on the east coast of Vancouver Island, by June 2022. Along with three other companies that have Discovery Islands salmon farms, Cermaq is arguing the process was unfair and that the decision, supported by seven local First Nations, needs to be revisited.

“The incredible thing about this situation, from a high-altitude view, is that it’s the first time that the First Nations and the Minister of Fisheries are on the same side and the fish farm companies are on the other side,” observed biologist Alexandra Morton, who has been at the forefront of a longstanding fight by wild salmon advocates to ban open-net pen salmon farms from B.C. waters.

For years, B.C.’s open-net pen salmon industry has been marred by mass escapes of Atlantic salmon into the Pacific Ocean — where it’s feared they could displace dwindling native salmon stocks — and accused of spreading disease and parasites to wild salmon.

Morton said the Discovery Islands decision, coupled with an earlier announcement that open-net pen salmon farms will be phased out of the Broughton archipelago, could sound the death knell for the industry in B.C. “This is the biggest challenge they have ever faced in the history of this industry. They’re fighting for their lives here in British Columbia.”

Cermaq has also filed written arguments and evidence to support an injunction application by Mowi Canada West (formerly Marine Harvest) and a numbered company that seek to transfer hundreds of thousands of fish to Discovery Island farms over the next several months, despite a federal decision prohibiting the farms from being restocked.

The injunction application will be heard in federal court starting on March 24, via Zoom proceedings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alexandra Morton sea lice BC

Biologist Alexandra Morton inspects a juvenile salmon for sea lice in her home on Gilford Island. Salmon farmer Mowi, as well as a numbered company, is seeking an injunction to move hundreds of thousands of fish to Discovery Island fish farms after the federal government announced all open-net pen fish farms must be phased out from the area by 2022. Morton is an intervenor in the case. Photo: David Moskowitz

Ecojustice lawyer Margot Venton, who represents Morton and four conservation groups that have been granted intervenor status in the injunction proceedings, said her clients are concerned Cermaq will bring a similar application if Mowi and the numbered company are permitted to restock three Discovery Island farms. Mowi raises Atlantic salmon while the numbered company farms chinook. 

A number of the Discovery Island farms are currently fallow, and restocking them this year could lead to a proliferation of sea lice next year, just as vulnerable juvenile Fraser River salmon are passing by, Venton said.

“Next year’s out migration is the progeny of the 2020 returning salmon — and that was the lowest recorded return of salmon since we started keeping records.”

In an emailed response to questions, the BC Salmon Farmers Association said the government’s decision to shut down Discovery Islands farms in 2022 does not provide ample time for a transition and risks 1,500 jobs in the short-term, “not to mention millions of young salmon and eggs at various stages of growth prior to being moved to an ocean farm.”

“By allowing salmon farmers to grow out all salmon destined for the farms and taking the time to sit down with all stakeholders we hope to develop a better path forward,” the association said.

Concerns growing over sea lice outbreaks and threats to wild salmon

Stan Proboszcz, science and campaign advisor for Watershed Watch Salmon Society, a science-based charity, said salmon farming companies have known for more than eight years they might have to leave the Discovery Islands, where sea lice outbreaks and diseases pose threats to migrating juvenile wild salmon as they swim through narrow channels dotted with fish farms.

The 2012 Cohen Commission investigating the decline of B.C. salmon stocks concluded that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) should prohibit open-net pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands by September 30, 2020, unless the federal fisheries minister was satisfied the farms posed at most a minimal risk to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon.

“They had plenty of time,” Proboszcz said in an interview. “They had no notice? That’s ridiculous.”

In an emailed response to questions, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, still known as DFO, said it cannot comment on matters before the courts. 

DFO said there has been no change to Minister Bernadette Jordan’s decision to phase out Discovery Islands salmon farms, noting the decision was made after much consultation, including with First Nations.

“We heard overwhelmingly from First Nations in the area that they do not want these fish farms there,” Jordan told the media in December. “They feel that they should have a say in their territorial waters, and I absolutely agree with them.” 

DFO said multiple factors were considered in the decision, including its mandate to transition away from open-net pens, consultations with First Nations and B.C.’s requirement that all aquaculture licenses will require agreement from local First Nations as of June 2022. Elsewhere in the world, land-based salmon farming is taking off; Atlantic Sapphire, for instance, plans to harvest more than twice B.C.’s yearly farmed salmon production at its Florida “Bluehouse” within 10 years.

Read more: The rise of the land salmon

Morton said wild juvenile salmon are starting to migrate through the Discovery Islands this month and re-stocking the open-net pen farms could spread sea lice, an industry scourge.

She noted that Mowi recently reported sea lice counts at its Discovery Islands Chancellor Channel farm at almost double the allowable limit.

“In the middle of this firestorm, the one place in the world I’m sure that Mowi would like to have all their farms in compliance would be the Discovery Islands.”

Morton said she has been tracking Mowi’s delousing vessel, the Aqua Tromoy, on a marine traffic website and has watched it pick up fish from Discovery Islands farms, move away from the farms while it holds the salmon in fresh water for about six hours to kill the lice, and then return the fish and pick up another load.

“The extremely frightening thing is they’re doing this treatment and we know the sea lice eventually become resistant to every treatment these companies do … If they become resistant to fresh water then they can enter the streams and the lakes. This would be catastrophic.”

Sea lice are a benign parasite under normal conditions in the wild, grazing on mucous on adult fish in the ocean, Morton said. In the fall, salmon migrate into rivers and the sea lice die, leaving very few lice on the coast in the wintertime and when juvenile salmon emerge from rivers in the spring at the start of their out-migration.

But open-net pen salmon farms provide year-round habitat for the lice. “Just like head lice can rip through a school population of children, and various ticks and things can proliferate in terrestrial feedlots, it’s the same dynamic here. The little wild salmon come out, they’re not ready for sea lice and they literally swim into clouds of larval lice who are all looking for a fish … and they just eat them to death,” Morton said.

In its email, DFO said it is aware that Mowi Canada West reported sea lice numbers over the allowable threshold in February at its Chancellor Channel farm.

“DFO worked closely with Mowi to monitor the situation and their mitigation plan, and has recently received written confirmation that the farm is now under the threshold,” the department said. “We will continue to monitor this situation and audit sea-lice levels of all aquaculture sites across British Columbia to ensure the health of the fish and the surrounding environment.”

The spread of sea lice from salmon farms to wild fish is linked to shrinking wild salmon runs, so DFO requires farms to do regular louse counts. If more than three adult lice are found on individual fish while juvenile wild salmon are migrating through the area, the company is obligated to conduct expensive delousing treatments to protect wild fish.

Glambeck said Cermaq currently has three delousing vessels in Clayoquot Sound, including two hydrolicers that pressure wash salmon and one well boat called the Ronja Islander that treats salmon with the sea lice pesticide.

“They suck the farmed salmon out of the pen, bathe them in the corrosive solution in the well boat and then return them to the pens. It’s a highly corrosive chemical and it actually removes the mucosal layer.” 

She said studies have shown that any type of handling causes suppression of the salmon’s immune system for up to 2 weeks. “And this can cause disease outbreaks … we’re quite concerned that all this treatment with the sea lice machinery and chemicals is actually going to trigger a viral outbreak as well.”  

The Narwhal reached out to Cermaq but did not hear back by press time.

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Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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