Scientists seek funds for sea lice research

January 27, 2005, vol. 32, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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With B.C.'s juvenile pink salmon poised to begin their migration past fish farms in a few months, and salmon aquaculture about to expand into virgin areas, scientists are pleading for action on sea lice.

New research is adding weight to their pleas that the federal and B.C. governments make “funding for research into the sea lice and pink salmon issue in the Broughton Archipelago the highest priority.”

The urgent plea concludes a report summarizing 25 scientists' recent discussion of new, stronger evidence that sea lice infested fish farms are potentially depressing wild salmon stocks in the B.C. archipelago.

Simon Fraser University's centre for coastal studies hosted the discussion, the fourth in a series aimed at bringing together disparate groups to address the link between sea lice-infested fish farms and declining wild pink stocks. Scientists at the meeting heard that fish farm bred sea lice will decimate the Broughton Archipelago's lucrative pink run if their proliferation is not stemmed.

Simon Fraser University fish population statistician Rick Routledge and Alexandra Morton, an independent fish biologist, shared the results of their study of the mortality of pink and chum fry. Fry infested with one to three sea lice died significantly faster than their sea lice-free counterparts. Details of the duo's research are not yet available while their report is under scientific review.

Routledge, Morton and Rob Williams, a Raincoast Conservation Society researcher, are about to publish another key study. It demonstrates that “sea lice loads dropped significantly on wild salmon fry sampled near three of the salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago that were cleared out (fallowed) in 2003. In 2004 the lice loads on wild fry sampled at these sites increased significantly when these same farms were not fallowed,” says Routledge.

Martin Krkosek, a master's of science candidate in statistical and biological sciences at the University of Alberta, demonstrated how fish farms are altering and intensifying the transmission of lice onto wild salmon.

Mick Burt, a professor emeritus of parasitology at the University of New Brunswick, also observed pink fry with the telltale pinholes of advanced-stage sea lice infestation in the Broughton Archipelago in 2004. “Pink salmon, coming out at around three centimeters with hardly any scales, are virtually naked. You can see the holes easily,” observes Burt.

Margaret McKibben, a fish biologist from Scotland, presented research confirming the same transmission dynamics in Scotland. She noted that the formation of a group, in which scientists, policymakers and fish farmers collaborated on sea lice control, helped confirm the connection. “Before the formation of this group we were unaware of the levels of sea lice on the neighbouring fish farms during our sampling periods,” says McKibben. “Once we were able to exchange sea lice data with the fish farmers a greater understanding of the sea lice patterns of abundance and distribution was achieved.”

Scientists say this collaboration was not in time to prevent the collapse of Scotland's sea trout sports fishery as a result of fish farm bred sea lice.

SFU fish biologist and ecologist Larry Dill says, “Government and the aquaculture industry cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the sea lice problem, given all the soon-to-be published evidence. It is time to implement the precautionary principle and get down to filling the gaps in scientific knowledge.”

Scientists are calling on policymakers and fish farmers in B.C. to collaborate on publicly sharing all data about sea lice infestations in and around fish farms. They want fallowing to be studied and used more extensively.

They want an immediate independent review of all sea lice and salmon related research thus far. They also want any approval of new fish farm licences to be based on intense monitoring of the farm's proposed site before and after the approval.

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