WATCH: Scientists are calling it a crisis. Unprecedented numbers of sea lice are being found on vulnerable young wild salmon smolts in the Clayoquot Sound. Numbers so high, they’re likely to be lethal for a large part of next generation of a species that’s already struggling. Kori Sidaway has more.
Just north of Tofino is a main artery for migrating salmon: Clayoquot Sound.
Right now, young smolts are making the big journey from their safe freshwater havens to the open ocean. But on their way, they’re facing what scientists say, is a crisis.
“One hundred per cent of the juveniles that are being tested are showing positive for sea lice and some have 12-15 lice per fish,” said Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans.
Any more than two lice per fish can be lethal. And researchers say these unprecedented numbers could be devastating.
“There’s no question sea lice are out of control,” said Wristen.
“We need to reverse course before we wipe out our wild salmon populations.”
The Clayoquot Sound, much like the rest of the oceans, is facing warmer waters and increased salinity. The region also has one of the densest concentration of salmon farms, and those fish are becoming resistant to the de-licing (SLICE) drugs companies have been using for decades.
And scientists say that’s creating a perfect storm that could have a ripple effect throughout the entire ecosystem.
“The young salmon will die and that, of course, that will have repercussions throughout the food chain, not just for marine mammals but for other fish species as well,” said marine biologist Dr. Anna Hall.
But, the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans says protecting wild Pacific salmon is a top priority for their government.
“Unfortunately, due to the impacts of climate change, our ocean temperatures are rising, creating favorable conditions for the growth of sea lice. The levels of lice present may once again be high during the juvenile outmigration period this spring. It is important that companies who do business on the ocean follow the rules and guidelines outlined in the Fisheries Act. This is what Canadians expect,” said press secretary for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jocelyn Lubczuk in a statement.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) says this past March they found Cermaq Canada to be in violation of 7 conditions of licence with regards to the 2019 wild salmon out-migration and issued the company a warning letter.
But Cermaq says they’re doing their part, by investing in new technologies like the $30 million ship that’s capable of washing sea lice off farmed salmon with freshwater.
“It’s up to us to keep our sea lice levels low on the farms,” said Linda Sams, the sustainable development director with fish farm company Cermaq Canada.
“That’s our responsibility. We take that really seriously and we need not be a contributing factor.”
But the ship isn’t available to all salmon farms in the region, so scientists believe the only real solution to the sea lice crisis, is getting the farms out of the ocean.
“If they were on land, we wouldn’t have a sea lice problem to begin with,” said Wristen.
The DFO is in the midst of a feasibility study considering transitioning to land-based fish farming. And the practice is something Cermaq Canada says they’re considering.
“We’re going to be trialing a semi-enclosed system soon. But just at this point, we haven’t had really any fulsome conversations, but it is on the table for us,” said Wristen.