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International News, April 2005

Scientists prove farms infect wild salmon

A scientific study published (30th March) in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B - a publication of the UK’s national academy of science - shows that the transfer of parasitic sea lice from salmon farms to wild salmon populations is much larger and more extensive than previously believed.

This quantitative analysis of parasite transfer is a scientific milestone in a contentious debate. It is the first to isolate and measure the impact of a fish farm on sea lice outbreaks in wild salmon.

“Our research shows that the impact of a single farm is far-reaching,” said lead author Marty Krkosek of the University of Alberta. “Sea lice production from the farm we studied was four orders of magnitude - 30,000 times - higher than natural. These lice then spread out around the farm. Infection of wild juvenile salmon was 73 times higher than ambient levels near the farm and exceeded ambient levels for 30km of the wild migration route.”

“We found lice levels exceeded what we would find normally, extending for 30 km – even though the farm is only about 0.2 km long,” says John Volpe, a co-author from the University of Victoria. “Conservatively this means that the parasite footprint of the farm is 150 times larger than the farm itself”.

Volpe said, “At about the 30 km mark from the farm, those lice become reproductive. In effect, the farm has exported its lice generating properties – a cyclical event establishing the potential for re-infections up and down the coast. As the abundance of lice increases, we are now realizing that lice will attack other species, not only salmon, but other fish such as herring which are the spark plugs of the entire ecosystems – everything depends on them – from salmon to whales to seabirds”. Read the Royal Society sea lice study in full.

Sea lice study “is the smoking gun”

“This is the smoking gun,” said one of the authors of the sea lice study, John Volpe, of the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria in an interview with The Globe and Mail (30th March). “There is no ambiguity in the data whatsoever. It’s very, very definitive . . . it’s clean and it’s conclusive”.

Jennifer Lash, executive director of the Living Ocean Society and a member of the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, said the new research should end debate over whether there is a definitive link between fish farms and sea lice epidemics. “This is definitive research that proves fish farms are the source of the high levels of sea lice on wild salmon,” she said. “Open-net fish farms cannot continue to exist on this coast.” Case closed one would think.

Industry still believes that “sea lice are good for wild salmon” (and in Santa Claus)

However, such scientific proof did not meet with the approval of the salmon farming industry. Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association, questioned the significance of the study. She said it involved only one farm and no general conclusions can be drawn.

In a letter to The Globe and Mail (1st April), Doug Millington retorted: “Ms. Walling is, of course, simply doing her duty as a good corporate officer, defending the interests of her industry regardless of the forces of reason and research arrayed against it. Still, we could wish for a more imaginative counter-attack. One wonders if Ms.Walling would use similar logic to dismiss the claims of Sir Isaac Newton regarding his far-fetched ideas about gravity. “Oh come, Sir Isaac. That was only one apple!”

Patrick Moore, paid lobbyist for the B.C. salmon farming industry, in an opinion piece in the National Post (5th April), said that: “Credible experts studying the Broughton issue are preparing to report in the scientific literature that pink salmon actually depend on the larvae of sea lice for some of their food supply. It may turn out that in balance the sea lice are good for wild salmon. I can already hear the shrieks of derisive horror coming from the true believers”.

Unconfirmed rumours are that the B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association is now launching a study to prove that the Earth is in fact flat and that the Moon is made of blue cheese.

Is it too late to save wild salmon?

Writing in The Globe and Mail (4th April), Mark Hume asks: “But is it too late?” Alexandra Morton, who has been dubbed “Erin Brockovich of the North” for her research in the Broughton Kjensmo, believes so. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Ms. Morton, who sees the young salmon hovering around the pilings near her float house.

“These are…..beautiful, silver, little fish that should be full of life and potential - and they are covered with lice. I would say time’s up for the Broughton Archipelago. The wild salmon need relief right now. It’s so sad. I know eventually something will be done about the fish farms. But I really wonder if it will be in time to save the salmon”.

Wal-Mart eco-certifies Chilean farmed salmon (with a little help from Nutreco)

In what is believed NOT to be an April Fool’s Day joke, The Wave (1st April) reported that Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has joined forces with Nutreco, the world’s largest fish farming company, to certify Chilean farmed salmon as ‘eco-friendly’. According to The Wave, the “voluntary certification program” was developed by Fundacion Chile, with the aid of the Production Development Corporation's fund for development and innovation, Marine Harvest Chile (Nutreco), Patagonia Salmon Farming and Pesquera Eicosal (Landcatch Chile).

“It’s just one of the things we are trying to do to get on the front side environmentally,” Peter Redmond, Wal-Mart’s vice president of seafood and deli, said in an interview with The Wave. Wal-Mart will presumably have to address the raft of environmental and social problems associated with Chilean farmed salmon including malachite green contamination and the illegal use of toxic chemicals.

Wal-Mart is apparently in “the beginning stages of the certification program” which started in March. Ultimately, Wal-Mart expects all of the product it sources from farmers in Chile will pass through the “eco-certification process”. Wal-Mart’s program will cover 30 production areas initially and then be expanded to 70 areas in Regions 10 and 11. Given the huge problems in Region 10, in particular, Wal-Mart may have to think twice about labelling contaminated Chilean farmed salmon as ‘eco-friendly’.

Shellfish poisoning affects 8,000 in Chile

Information compiled by the Chilean Ministry of Health reveals that a staggering 8,000 people were poisoned between December 2004 and mid-February 2005 from consuming fish or shellfish infected with parahemolytic vibrio. The Government is warning people to cook shellfish for at least five minutes to kill off the bacteria but sales have plunged by 80%.

Shellfish poisoning events appear to be linked with a high concentration of salmon farms. Region 10 – where the vast majority of Chilean salmon farms are located – is the worst hit with confirmed cases of 2,130 people poisoned. On February 15th, Region 10 saw the first reported death - a 65-year-old woman who lived in the salmon farming capital of the world, Puerto Montt (Region 10).

The Ministry of Health said that poisoning from parahemolytic vibrio causes “intestinal symptoms characterized by acute diarrhoea and stomach cramps, which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, fever and violent headaches”. In more severe cases, there may be a syndrome of dysentery and high fever.

South Africa has also issued (18th March) a shellfish poisoning alert along the country’s entire West Coast, from Doring Bay to as far-east as Cape Agulhus. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, has advised people not to eat shellfish in the affected areas until further notice due to Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) and Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP). Symptoms include tingling and numbness of the mouth, lips and fingers, difficulty in breathing, accompanied by general muscular weakness and lack of coordination. In severe cases it could cause even paralysis.

Storm rages over salmon farming in South Africa

The international storm over sea cage salmon farming has not deterred the South African Government from dipping its toes into the poisoned (and shark infested) waters. The Cape Times (5th April) reports that a Norwegian-owned salmon farm off Gansbaai is an “an ecological disaster”. Two scientists, Michael Scholl of the University of Cape Town, and Nicholas Pade of the University of Aberdeen, have produced a paper highly critical of the salmon farming venture.

“Many Europeans say you shouldn’t buy farmed salmon because of the associated environmental problems,” Scholl said. “In Norway, which has a lot of salmon farms, they are getting very strict with lots of laws and regulations. Now, because the regulations (in Norway) are so strict, they probably want to come to South Africa. Great White sharks will be attracted to the salmon pens. These sharks may break or damage the nets, get entangled or be killed by fish farmers”.

Offshore fish farms make waves off the US

“Thousands of oil and natural gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico could be converted into deep-sea fish farms raising red snapper, mahi mahi, yellow fin tuna and flounder, under a plan backed by the Bush administration,” reports CNN news (4th April).

“For years, marine biologists and oil companies have experimented using the giant platforms as bases for mariculture, but commercial use of the platforms as fish farms never got off the ground because of the federal government’s reluctance to open up the oceans to farming. Yet in December, President Bush proposed making it easier to launch fish farms off the nation’s coasts. That could be done by resolving a ‘confounding array of regulatory and legal obstacles’, the White House said”.

Pilot projects in New Hampshire, Hawaii and soon California and Puerto Rico are testing cages large enough to hold 30,000 mid-sized fish. Engineers are working to make bigger cages, mechanized feeding tools and stronger anchors to protect against powerful currents in the open ocean. The cages sit 40 to 60 feet beneath the surface to stay out of the way of boats and to avoid most of the turbulence caused by waves.

Not everyone sees the benefits of offshore fish farming though. Republican Sam Farr, D-Carmel, sent a letter to the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in July 2004 requesting an environmental impact review before the legislation is put before Congress. “There are several issues such as water pollution, possible introduction of invasive species and spread of disease, that concern me about expanding aquaculture offshore,” Farr said. “I sincerely hope NOAA is focusing on the cumulative environmental impact of ramping up offshore aquaculture, instead of blindly promoting it as an economic opportunity”.

“I think the danger here is that the federal government is poised to make the same mistakes they made with fishing over the years,” said Mike Sutton, director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans, in an interview with the Monterey County Herald (5th April). “And that is, subsidize the heck out of a new industry with little thought to the long-term effects”. Zeke Grader, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, agrees. “Among the fishing community, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any fisherman that would be supportive,” he said.