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Advocates, salmon farm industry at odds over B.C. herring deaths

Click to play video: 'Concerns over deaths of wild fish near salmon farms'
Concerns over deaths of wild fish near salmon farms
Federal data shows a significant spike in the number of wild fish killed near salmon farms in B.C. last year. New technology meant to remove parasites is being blamed for the deaths, but the salmon farming industry says that technology has already been fixed. Catherine Urquhart reports. – Dec 5, 2023

Salmon advocates in B.C. are raising the alarm about what they call an “unprecedented spike” in wild fish killed as part of B.C. salmon farming operations off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Documents obtained through access-to-information legislation, and reviewed and distributed by the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, show more than 800,000 herring have been killed in association with Cermaq Canada activities alone in recent years, through activities used to manage harmful sea lice parasites in the farmed salmon population.

The herring were killed as bycatch, or incidental catch, which means it was not caught intentionally.

Click to play video: 'B.C. salmon farms linked to increase in wild fish deaths'
B.C. salmon farms linked to increase in wild fish deaths

“Herring are a really important component of marine food webs,” said Stan Proboszcz, senior scientist with the society, in an interview. “They filter plankton and small crustaceans and they’re this link between plankton and larger animals. They also feed many different animals like fish, hake, chinook salmon, and even humpback whales.

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“We’re depriving many different species of their food source.”

Click to play video: 'BC Salmon Farmers Association reacts to wild fish death concerns'
BC Salmon Farmers Association reacts to wild fish death concerns

No one at Cermaq Canada was available for an interview Tuesday, but in a written statement, the company said the deaths of the herring coincided with an “unprecedented increase of wild herring biomass near our farms on the west coast of Vancouver Island.” Monthly incidental catch data is regularly reported and published, it added.

“In 2023, efforts to significantly mitigate incidental catch have been successful, reducing incidents by 94.6% to date,” the company wrote.

“We take this issue very seriously, and will continue to collaborate with the Ahousaht Nation and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to further reduce incidental catch.”

Click to play video: 'Coho salmon deaths concern streamkeepers'
Coho salmon deaths concern streamkeepers

Among the documents shared by the Watershed Watch Salmon Society is an August 2022 email from a Fisheries and Oceans Canada manager of strategic issues, highlighting a Cermaq Canada analysis that found “multiple events impacting approximately 850,000 herring over a period of two years.”

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Pacific herring make up 90 per cent of “incidental catch” during activities where fish are removed from pens or handled, such as harvest, transfer or treatment, the manager writes in one email.

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In March 2021, DFO states that a mechanical sea lice treatment by Cermaq killed 130,000 herring in Clayoquot Sound. More than 700,000 were also killed at several Cermaq facilities during recent production cycles, linked to the use of a specific “hydrolicer” vessel.

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Crucial salmon passage restored in Surrey

The BC Salmon Farmers Association said the Watershed Watch Salmon Society is raising claims that are more than a year old and have been dealt with by the federal government.

“We pride ourselves on farming extremely sustainable salmon here in British Columbia and we’re working to make sure we preserve the marine environment,” Brian Kingzett, executive director of the association, said Tuesday.

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“This incident that happened over a year ago was the result of one area where we had just a tremendous number of juvenile herring attracted to the structures of the farm and got caught up in some pumps … the sector has been working with new technologies to combat sea lice, some of which involve moving the fish either through bags or through water jets.”

Kingzett said the equipment and machineries have since been modified with great success.

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Volunteers in desperate race to rescue stranded salmon

In the document package from the society, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the Cermaq Canada incidents would not likely have a negative long-term impact on the herring in the region.

“These mortalities represent a very small proportion (less than 0.01%) of the estimated juvenile herring population on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and is unlikely to have an impact on the population in future years,” reads one document suggesting speaking points and facts to be distributed to the news media.

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At the time, the ministry also said inspections were coming for sea lice treatment vessels across the west coast, and changes to bycatch management and reporting would be required as a result. The file was also referred to the department’s Conservation and Protection Branch to assess Cermaq’s compliance with the conditions of its licence, the Aug. 2, 2022, email states.

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Pink salmon run leads to illegal fishing

The Watershed Watch Salmon Society, joined by environmental advocacy group Clayoquot Sound, argued that the herring bycatch “suggests serious failures in farm operations and oversight.”

In a statement to Global News, DFO said its investigation into the incidents resulted in the implementation of new Conditions of Licence in March 2023 to ensure sea lice treatments don’t cause this type of impact on wild fish, and to require earlier and more frequent industry reporting when they do encounter wild fish during lice treatments.

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“The updated Conditions of Licence require that aquaculture operators describe the mitigations they are taking to ensure that wild fish are not impacted during sea lice treatments,” DFO said.

“If those efforts fail, operators are required to stop the treatment immediately, address the issue, and report the incident to DFO.”

Incidental catch must also now be reported quarterly, it said, and added no similar incidents had been reported since 2022.

Salmon farming is a contentious issue in B.C., with sustained concerns about the transfer of disease from farmed populations to wild populations, already strained by climate change, pollution, habitat degradation, and other influences, with generally low returns.

Ottawa has committed to phasing out pen-net salmon farming in the province by 2025. It was supposed to have a transition plan ready this year, but announced a delay in June to extend consultations.

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