Norway Take Your Lice and Go Home

Sea lice are back. Wild salmon endangered.

As spring comes to the BC coast, young wild salmon are leaving the rivers where they were born and entering the ocean.  Our pink and chum salmon take an exceptional gamble – they don’t spend a year in fresh water, they leave their rivers right away, tiny slips of silver weighing less that 1/2 a gram.  These two species salmon are a gift to our rivers.  Adult pink and chum salmon deposit tons of nutrients in the rivers when they spawn and die, but their babies don’t feed on the insect life that this abundance of nutrients produces, they leave this food for the coho, chinook, sockeye, steelhead and trout that live in the rivers for part or all of their lives.

Chum fry

This life strategy has proven remarkably successful.  Pink salmon are the most abundant salmon on our coast, and one of the cleanest foods on earth because they have such a short life-span and they feed low on the food chain.  However, because they leave the rivers so young, they tiny with no protective no scales.  Out of ignorance, the BC government put salmon farms on our biggest wild salmon migration routes and like everywhere in the world, these salmon farms are breeding factories for lice and these lice are attacking our pink and chum salmon to death.

I discovered the sea louse problem in BC in 2001.  BC’s biggest environmental groups got involved and the industry was forced to de-louse their fish before the wild salmon left their rivers. This brought lice numbers down from an average 9 lice per tiny juvenile salmon, to less than 1 louse per fish and pink salmon survival sky-rocketed.   The sense was that at least this problem with salmon farms had been solved, but this spring 14 years later the lice are back as bad as ever. No progress.

Look closely at these fish caught in Broughton a few days ago.  The nearly transparent pink creatures with a black eyespot are the juvenile phase sea lice.  At this stage they are tethered to the fish and so, like a horse tethered in a field eating the grass down to bare earth, these lice have grazed through the tender skin of these fish into the fish’s flesh.  You can see the wounds and the skin of these fish pinching towards the open wound as the life is being sucked out of these fish. Note the person’s thumb for a size reference.

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Chalimus wound

These salmon will not survive. We know this – we have done the science on this.  Here are my publications on impact of sea lice.

80% of pink salmon in Broughton are infected with sea lice right now. This represents huge potential impact on the BC coast and I don’t know what is happening in other regions of this coast. We don’t know if the farmers simply did not de-louse their fish, or if their drugs don’t work anymore.

The salmon farms in the Broughton have head offices in Norway and Marine Harvest – the biggest salmon farmer in the world and Broughton admits they don’t know how to control their lice problem.

Whoever solves sea lice

While the salmon farming industry purportedly treats First Nations with respect, that appears to apply only to the Nations who have welcomed salmon farms.

The Nations of the Broughton have said “no” to salmon farming from day one – 27 years ago!  But the industry remains in their territory, uninvited, in fact, a salmon farm at the mouth of Kingcome Inlet called Sir Edmund Bay has just been approved to expand nearly 3-fold, despite opposition from the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation, the people of Kingcome Inlet.

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However, the impact of sea lice from salmon farms infecting wild salmon goes far beyond the Broughton Archipelago. It reaches deep into British Columbia throughout the Fraser River watershed. A paper just published in Canada’s premier fisheries journal reports that:

Highly infected sockeye were 20% less successful at consuming food, on average, than lightly infected fish

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This means that Nations who were not consulted are also facing impact as their salmon swim through the blizzard of feces and larval lice at salmon farms now dotting the wild salmon migration routes of BC.

As if everything none of this was happening – the salmon farming industry is threatening to expand by 40% in British Columbia.  The Canadian Senate is reviewing whether to change the laws of Canada to allow them to use chemicals that can kill fish, own fish in the ocean and kill wild salmon to protect farmed salmon from disease.  The Harper government just gave this dirty industry 9 year licences, which will come into effect in December when their current licences expire.  There are huge unanswered questions about viruses in these open feedlots, such as the high infection rate with piscine reovirus, which Norway reports spreads easily and can damage a salmon’s heart so badly it won’t be able to swim up a river. Without solid evidence BC claims this virus is not a problem and thus millions of infected Atlantic salmon are currently in our biggest wild salmon migration routes. I am still awaiting a decision from the judge who heard my case 10 months ago on whether to stop transfer of farmed salmon carrying pathogens associated with disease into net pens on our wild salmon migration routes.

My sense is the door is closing rapidly on our being able to protect wild salmon from salmon farms.  People are losing this fight in Tasmania, Scotland, Ireland, eastern Canada and even Norway.  The environmental groups in BC had to drop this issue because funding dried up and they could not pay their staff who were working on this issue.  So it is up to us and here are two very important things you can do:

Tell Norway to divest from dirty salmon.  A large number of Norwegians have signed this, with very tough language, if you scroll down the petition page you can read the comments.

Norway is a beautiful country with high moral standard, they divested from dirty coal and oil earlier this year, they need to hear how people feel about this dirty Norwegian industry

Fund a campaign to educate the consumer.  Every month another food group warn us not to eat farmed salmon, but our sushi restaurants are still serving it raw straight from the farm.  Click on the SAFE TO EAT? page above and learn more.  The public deserves to know that eating farmed salmon is a risk to our oceans and to our health, particularly our babies. However, reaching the public is expensive. It is not something I can do without you.

At this point I find it very hard to believe that our senate, federal or provincial governments will protect our wild salmon from this industry.  There has been a long and shameful history of covering up the evidence and attacking the messengers. For any who have not seen it watch this film. Government is not operating in our interest on this issue.

I will never give up, but seeing the lethal lice loads on our tiny wild salmon today after 14 years of trying to clean up the lice and the rapid-pace changes to the laws of Canada to accommodate more salmon farms, all I can say is everyone needs to lean into this.  This has to become an election issue in Canada.  Wild salmon are critical to our country and clearly trying to fix this industry while it remains in the ocean and expanding is not working.

Alexandra Morton was living in a remote archipelago studying whales when the fish farmers came to her town. Read other articles by Alexandra, or visit Alexandra's website.