media release

Lousy sockeye are lousy competitors

April 30, 2015

Sean Godwin, 250.974.7177,
Carol Thorbes, University Communications, 778.782.3035,


With major funding from several groups, including NSERC, an SFU doctoral student has made a key discovery regarding Fraser River sockeye’s vulnerability to sea lice.

Recently published research indicates that juvenile Fraser River sockeye salmon that are highly infected with sea lice are 20 per cent less successful at consuming food than their lightly infected counterparts. Sean Godwin, a Simon Fraser University doctoral biology student is the lead author of a study, co-authored by SFU biologists John Reynolds and Larry Dill (emeritus), and University of Toronto researcher Martin Krkosek. The study appears on line in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.

Godwin says given how little is known about what affects sockeye survival in the ocean and how uncertain federal fisheries’ predictions are as a result, this study’s findings deserve serious attention.

“We need to get a better understanding of whether the effect of sea louse infection in our study scales up to the population level,” explains Godwin. “This is the first concrete evidence to suggest that sea lice may indirectly affect the survival of juvenile sockeye, not directly through disease but instead through reduced foraging success. More research is needed to determine whether sea lice influence adult sockeye returns.”

Godwin notes research suggests that the early marine life of these sockeye is a gauntlet of survival challenges, particularly in Johnstone Strait.

“This is where they have to cope with challenges such as increased predation, lack of food and pathogens such as sea lice,” says Godwin. “They have to have sufficient energy reserves and be able to capitalize on whatever food they can find. If their ability to compete for limited food is impaired, say by sea louse infection, starvation risk could be increased.”

Godwin says that fish farms have previously been linked to infection of wild juvenile sockeye by sea lice and that Pacific herring might also be a second reservoir for the parasites. The fish farms that would be affecting Fraser River sockeye hold Atlantic salmon, are Norwegian-owned and are mainly located in the Discovery Islands, between the Mainland and northern Vancouver Island.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Watershed Watch Salmon Society, and the Tom Buell Endowment Fund supported by the Pacific Salmon Foundation and the BC Leading Edge Endowment Fund, supporting SFU biologist John Reynolds' chair, financed this research.

As Canada's engaged university, SFU is defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research and far-reaching community engagement.  SFU was founded almost 50 years ago with a mission to be a different kind of university—to bring an interdisciplinary approach to learning, embrace bold initiatives, and engage with communities near and far. Today, SFU is a leader amongst Canada's comprehensive research universities and is ranked one of the top universities in the world under 50 years of age. With campuses in British Columbia's three largest cities—Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby—SFU has eight faculties, delivers almost 150 programs to over 30,000 students, and boasts more than 130,000 alumni in 130 countries around the world.


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