Summer of discontent over fish farms: Aquaculture industry faces growing protests on Island’s west coast

Mike Youds, July 24, 2019

This summer the Hydrolicer arrived in Tofino, a $13.5-million investment from Cermaq Canada to control sea lice in its farms. (Ha-Shilth-Sa photo)

Tofino, BC — 

Open net-pen fish farming on the Island’s west coast is facing stronger community opposition this summer as the aquaculture industry works to prevent another explosion of sea lice and DFO promises tighter regulation.

Clayoquot Sound’s summer of discontent has brought public demonstrations and a boarding of two Creative Salmon fish farms at Waren Island and Indian Bay by Tla-o-qui-aht citizens on June 11. With support from their Tyee Ha’wilth Hiyoueah and the Sea Shepherd Society, the boarding party captured video images of farmed salmon with deformities and signs of disease as well as wild salmon and herring trapped in open net pens.

Those images disturbed surrounding communities, leading to a flotilla protest on June 24 that drew hundreds of participants. Earlier last month, a rally was held outside the Tofino office of Cermaq Canada, one of the main aquaculture companies on the coast, and an alliance of Indigenous leaders led a talking circle and march to Cermaq’s processing plant.

Cermaq operates more than half of the 27 fish farms in Clayoquot Sound, though it harvested and closed three of its farms after sea lice counts spiked beyond the regulated threshold last summer.

“We’ve had very low counts on our farms,” Amy Jonsson, communications specialist with Cermaq, said in early July.

In an open letter published June 20 in Ha-Shilth-Sa and the Tofino Westerly News, Cermaq Canada Managing Director David Kiemele acknowledged that Ahousaht had placed the company on notice over continued sea lice problems and pledged to do better.

Ha-Shilth-Sa made repeated efforts to contact Cermaq officials for an update on the sea lice problem. Despite promises, the company did not follow through.

Tsimka Martin, who was part of the boarding party and helped shoot the video, co-founded the group Nuuchahnulth Salmon Alliance this spring. She’s worked with other local groups demanding an end to open net-pen farms in Clayoquot Sound.

“I’m really convinced that when my community sees this footage, they will be convinced of this, too,” she implores in the video, posted on Facebook.

Martin feels open-pen fish farms in Clayoquot Sound can be removed if enough people speak out. She later explained to Ha-Shilth-Sa that their concerns include a variety of fish diseases associated with fish farming and are not limited to sea lice.

“I think what has to happen is that there needs to be a strong enough movement,” she said. “Obviously, the industry is going to fight back any way they can … I think it’s important to keep the demonstrations going because that keeps a spotlight on the issue.”

Amid varied reports of sea lice conditions this summer, frustration has grown as anecdotal and scientific reports accumulate, mounting evidence that questions the ability of marine-based fish farms to control and contain sea lice. Reports of sea lice infesting juvenile chum have caused additional alarm. While not fatal to adult salmon, sea lice can kill juveniles.

“We’re getting nowhere,” said Roger Dunlop, NTC’s northern region biologist.

Sea lice in some cases have developed an immunity to SLICE, a drug commonly used to control infestation. That has forced the industry to seek new treatments that include hydrogen peroxide, a flee-control ingredient called Lufenuron (approved strictly for emergency use) and a $13.5-million treatment barge that was to begin operations in Clayoquot Sound this summer.

Doing some simple calculations, Dunlop doesn’t believe DFO’s threshold of acceptability —three sea lice motiles per farmed fish — is safe. With 5,000 Atlantic salmon per pen, numbers soar rapidly, he figures. He also questions the effectiveness of hydrogen peroxide.

“As long as we have fish farms with open net pens out in the water, you’re going to have lice and fish farms are not going to be able to control them,” Dunlop said.

Jared Dick, NTC central region biologist, has been researching the sea lice problem in relation to wild fish after last year’s farm outbreaks in Clayoquot Sound. While sea lice are naturally occurring, beach seining on Vargas Island in June 2018 revealed a presence that was alarming.

“We started seeing juvenile chum completely covered with lice,” he said. “Adults were covered in lice at all stages.”

Similarly, bi-weekly counts at fish farms indicated their sea lice counts were escalating as well.

“We’re seeing millions and millions of lice growing and spreading from these farms. One farm had 50 lice per fish … What we have is a huge explosion of sea lice and wild salmon are covered with them,” Dick said. “It’s not just a coincidence.”

With emergence of sea lice resistance to conventional treatment, the situation has spun out of control, he believes. Alternative treatments are not fully effective, leaving lice to re-attach.

Where is the precautionary principle in all of this?

“It’s non-existent,” Dick said.

The principle — adapted from the Hippocratic oath to “first do no harm” — has become integral to international accords enshrining environmental protections. The principle recognizes a duty to prevent harm even when scientific evidence remains inconclusive.

Minister of Fisheries Jonathan Wilkinson has cited the precautionary principle while rolling out DFO’s responses to the sea lice problem. On June 28, the government promised more rigorous conditions of licence for fish farms, stronger enforcement and a new area-based management.

“The Government of Canada recognizes that, in working within a precautionary approach, we need to ensure sea lice management measures include robust enforcement actions and that these measures meet the highest international standards. We are committed to taking action now to address recent sea lice incidents and concerns that have been raised by interested observers regarding sea lice and wild salmon.”

With hundreds of jobs at stake at west coast fish farms — including employees from First Nations — there has been reluctance to take on the industry. That rationale doesn’t hold water for those who have stepped up protests this summer, though.

“Certainly, I feel that the long-term existence of wild salmon is more important than those jobs,” Martin said. “I do understand the situation up in remote places and providing employment, but I think we’re all adaptable and intelligent people and can figure out other employment.”

While there are major economic pressures, the onus should not be placed on coastal First Nations to come up with solutions, she added. Some defend fish farming, but a larger proportion of the community favours the movement to return to proper stewardship of the land, Martin believes.

The solution isn’t as simple as moving fish farms onto land, Dick said.

“Unfortunately, with globalization of the market, costs will rise and they can’t compete,” he said. “That’s a big hindrance to moving to land.”

Land-based fish farms would almost certainly gravitate to central locations such as Nanaimo or Vancouver, depriving coastal communities of a significant source of employment, he added.

While Dick wants to acquire more evidence before reaching a conclusion, Dunlop is adamant.

“They’re externalizing all their costs on the Canadian public for their pollution,” Dunlop said. “It’s not an ecologically sustainable industry in any manner. It can make money for a few.”