Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Government's silence on sea lice and wild salmon a problem

Sea lice are quite creepy. They look like little tadpoles - maybe one-quarter of an inch long. And they attach themselves to salmon and other fish and suck their blood.
It's usually not a problem. A few lice don't hurt a fish.
But for several years, researchers have been finding that salmon farms changed things. The concentration of fish in a small area meant dense sea lice populations as well. And the lice didn't just stick around. If a migrating wild salmon passed through the area, it encountered much denser populations than in the rest of the ocean.
And too many sea lice - particularly on a three-inch young salmon - can kill. (It's not a B.C. problem. European fish farms have faced the same issue.)
The industry and government have denied the problem exists. The industry has tended to attack the researchers.
The province has ordered a few farms fallowed during migration periods. But it's pro-industry. The government has had an all-party legislative committee report on aquaculture for eight months now without responding in anyway to the recommendations.
But the evidence of the sea lice problem has been piling up. Last year, when an environmental group laid charges, the Attorney General's Ministry appointed a special prosecutor to decide whether they should go ahead. Bill Smart - the special prosecutor in the Glen Clark case - sought independent scientific advice. The fisheries expert, Frederick Whoriskey, concluded salmon farms were creating a sea lice problem that was killing pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago. A single farm produces more than 50 million sea lice eggs a year, he found.
Smart concluded that sea lice from salmon farms were harming the wild fish. He decided not to go ahead with the prosecution because it wasn't clear that was against the law.
The industry went on the attack; the government ignored the independent prosector's report.
This month, a research study published in the journal Science found the sea lice from salmon farms in the area threaten wild pink salmon with extinction. Local pinks could be gone within four years, the researchers reported.
This was a peer-reviewed study; other scientists had to assess its legitimacy before it could be published.
Research can always be disputed. The provincially funded Pacific Salmon Forum says its research shows no connection between fish farms and sea lice on wild salmon.
But the findings published in Science can't sensibly be ignored. Risking the future of wild salmon stocks, given the evidence, would be reckless.
The question is whether the industry and the government will see it that way.
The industry's reaction so far has unfortunately been to deny a problem. Accepting the risk would open the door to potential solutions. The authors of the Science article note that relocating the fish farms to deeper waters or away from wild salmon migration routes would help.
The provincial government has seemed frozen. It handed the whole problem off to an all-party committee of MLAs, with an NDP majority, which held hearings. Its report was done in May.
Agriculture Minister Pat Bell said the government would have a new aquaculture policy by the fall. But so far, nothing.
The industry provides needed jobs in coastal communities and the farmed salmon fetches about $240 million a year. The economic impact is significant.
But opposition has moved beyond the environmental movement. A coalition of some 100 ecotourism businesses says the sea lice damage to wild salmon threatens their $1.4-billion industry. It bought a full-page ad in The Globe and Mail this fall to press the federal and provincial governments for action.
And the future of wild salmon is one those issues that goes beyond fishermen and coastal communities.
There are lots of factors in the vanishing salmon, from climate change to development to logging practices.
But sea lice are part of the problem, according to solid research. The government is going to face increasing pressure to deal with the issue.
Footnote: The legislative committee called for governments to help the industry to move to "closed containment" systems instead of mesh pens. But the salmon farmers say practical technology doesn't exist. The committee also offered common sense measures like removing environmental protection from the Agricuture Ministry, was is charged with promoting the industry.


Anonymous said...

John Fraser of the Pacific Salmon Forum sounds like he doesn't believe the peer studied review. It goes against what scientists are saying. Now figuer that one out.

Anonymous said...

The salmon farming industry sounds much like the old tobacco industry... pretty soon we'll have The British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association telling folks that sea lice are good for us and that we should look for lice infested salmon when shopping for seafood.

Anonymous said...

Which begs the question: are we consuming sea lice when we eat farmed salmon?

VancouverIAM Team said...

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Anonymous said...

Wait a minute... John Fraser was the one who sounded the alarm to DFO and the Province over the Broughton sea lice issue in the first place, and pressed for the establishment of the Forum to try to find some objective answers, and as far as I know they're still working on that.

The science around this is extremely polarized--there are very few scientists who haven't already made up their minds that fish farms are either THE problem or NO problem, and who can thus give you a fair answer, so there's no shortage of shaky science on both sides.

The real question is why DFO (i.e. federal fisheries) scientists, who should have some more objectivity than the province, are not commenting on this. Perhaps they're afraid of being slagged like Fraser -- a guy whose impeccable record of commitment to wild salmon conservation would suggest he is genuinely trying to find straight answers to resolve this problem.

If he has questions, I'd like to hear what they are before jumping to any conclusions.

Anonymous said... more thing - I don't think the Pacific Salmon Forum has ever stated that there is no link between fish farms and sea lice on wild salmon, Paul. How on earth could they, if they're still part-way through a $5 million dollar, 3-year research program to investigate that question?

There's a whole bunch of likelier shades-of-grey scenarios between "no link" and "total extinction in 3 years" and I would seriously question any "scientist" who claims either one of these polar extremes as fact.

(And none of the above detracts from the fact that it would be wise for the Province to take a more precautionary approach to fish farming until some clearer answers are provided.)

off-the-radar said...

DFO and DFO scientists don't have much credibility, they're a politically driven organization.

And a three year study when we're in the midst of a crisis? Not effective management.

But then again when has government ever effectively managed fishing? The move to factory fishing was pushed by government, destroying coastal communities and small sustainable economiies (not to mention fish stocks). Then there's the whole cod story of course. But also herring and halibut and, and, and . . .

Gazetteer said...

Regarding the apparent 'he said, she said' nature of the science....

It's important to realize that there is a top and a bottom to the ladder of scientific journals with respect to the rigour of the peer review.

It's also important to understand that the journal 'Science' is at, or near the very top, of that ladder.


Anonymous said...

Gazetteer has it exactly right about the relative credibility of various publications, even amont scientific journals, but it goes further.

Not only do authoritative journals like Science provide thorough peer review, they encourage debate in the event that interpretations of research differ. In fact it's not uncommon in the scientific literature to have an article reviewed specifically by people who are inclined to disagree with its findings, because they are the most likely to probe for weaknesses.

If those who disagree with the work of Morton et al want to submit their research to Science in refutation, they can certainly do so, and if it meets Science's standards, including review, it will surely be published. Of course if it's not up to snuff, it won't.

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