More research urged on effect of sea lice in Broughton region

March 18, 2004, vol. 29, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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Ottawa urgently needs to find out whether sea lice-infested fish farms are killing wild salmon in Northern B.C.'s Broughton Archipelago.

That is the view of Simon Fraser University statistics professor Rick Routledge, a researcher studying the issue and a participant in a recent workshop about it in Alert Bay. “The evidence implicating the fish farms remains circumstantial and incomplete,” says Routledge, “but it is very compelling.”

Routledge and other workshop participants are dismayed that a 2004 federal study of the Broughton Archipelago's salmon fishery will not begin until the end of March. Pink salmon smolts will have already started migrating out of the archipelago's inlets, past fish farms, and into the ocean by then.

SFU's centre for coastal studies (CCS) organized the Alert Bay workshop to get stakeholders discussing new research about rising sea lice populations in fish farms and declining wild salmon runs in the Broughton Archipelago.

(See Sea lice proceedings for The Speaking For the Salmon report on the workshop, prepared by CCS.)

The archipelago's nutrient rich inlets are major producers of B.C.'s salmon runs, particularly pink salmon, the most abundant salmon species.

Studies done by Routledge, a CCS member, Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist, and other researchers over the last few years have shown that sea lice levels on wild salmon near active fish farms are much higher than elsewhere.

Routledge stresses that scientists must nail down the lethal sea lice load for juvenile pink salmon because European evidence suggests that one louse can kill a juvenile pink. “This is no better than an educated guess,” explains Routledge. “Our salmon are much smaller than their wild European counterparts and not closely related.”

Routledge's most recent work with Morton's team shows that when some Broughton Archipelago farms were emptied of fish in 2003, the lice loads on wild salmon caught in the vicinity declined substantially. Like many conservationists and native groups at the workshop, Routledge questions the provincial government's refusal to make public details on fish farm sea lice loads.

Routledge and other scientists are frustrated because the provincial government is not further researching or enforcing the emptying of fish farms in 2004.

Also, a recent major study by the federal department of fisheries neglected to examine the connection between sea lice, pink salmon and fish farms.

John Fraser, the chair of the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, concludes that the federal and provincial governments are dragging their heels on investigating the issue. He says that federal fisheries must resolve conflicting interests.“The inherent conflict is whether the department is going to promote acquaculture or look after the wild fish and the habitat,” says Fraser. The council is an independent body, advising the federal government on Pacific salmon conservation.

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