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UPDATE: Sea lice treatments kill nearly 1 million herring in salmon farms

UPDATED 2023-12-07

BC salmon farmers killed a record number of herring last year while trying to manage sea lice.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada data shows in 2022, more than 800,000 herring died at BC salmon farms. That’s the most ever recorded by DFO in a single year. In 2021, 157,000 herring were killed. The annual average for the 10 years prior was 27,000.

Environmental group Clayoquot Action witnessed at least one mass kill incident last May and says Cermaq Canada’s hydrolicer, a $13 million customized boat which sucks salmon aboard to spray them with water and remove sea lice before putting them back in their pens, is the culprit. The boat was put into regular service in 2020.

Executive director Dan Lewis says the suction hoses pick up herring as well as salmon, and the treatment is too strong for small fish.

“What we were witnessing was dead herring, juvenile herring, bubbling up beside of the hydrolicer with their eyeballs blown out. It was really horrendous,” he said. “Some of them were still twitching, they were still alive without their eyeballs.”

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He says the incident shows salmon farms attract herring, and that salmon farms aren’t doing enough to prevent them from being harmed by farming operations.

He says west coast herring numbers were starting to show improvement, after fisheries have been closed in past years because of poor numbers. Watching hundreds die in a single sea lice treatment was a blow, he says.

“We witnessed, I would say, hundreds of herring that day and we were shocked and horrified,” he said. “I can’t imagine 800,000 over a period of one year being killed on these fish farms.”

According to a flurry of internal DFO emails last year, recently released after activist Alexandra Morton filed an access to information request, the ministry only found out about the herring kills two years after they started because of a “lag in reporting.”

Kirsten Lawrie, manager of strategic issues for DFO Pacific, said in an August 2022 email the deaths were because of Cermaq’s hydrolicer.

“Cermaq Canada recently committed to a protocol agreement with the Ahousaht First Nation that requires them to manage sea lice below the threshold required by DFO,” she said. “This more aggressive sea lice management approach resulted in changes in their mitigation practices and directly contributed to an increase in incidental catch and mortality.”

In the email chain, DFO officials said they didn’t believe the herring deaths would have an effect on the species’ population in Clayoquot Sound.

At a recent press conference when asked about the herring kills, Premier David Eby says salmon farms have lost their social licence in BC and will be transitioned out of the ocean.

“For the net pen fish farms, I think it’s safe to say that the social licence for those that just sit in the ocean and cause the death of other fish, is expired,” he said.

UPDATE: Company responds

Cermaq Canada responded to questions about the herring kill on Thursday.

“While incidental catch of wild fish associated with Cermaq salmon farms has typically been very low, our company did report an unfortunate rise in Pacific herring catch in 2022,” the company said in a statement. “This coincided with an unprecedented increase of wild herring biomass near our farms on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This was identified as an area that required immediate and effective action from our company, led by the oversight and objectives of our Indigenous partners.”

The company says it “worked collaboratively with the Ahousaht First Nation, through objectives set out in our protocol agreement, to address this incident to great effect. As a result, incidental Pacific herring catch in 2023 has seen a 94.6% reduction over 2022.”

Cermaq shared incidental catch data from 2023, which has not yet been published by DFO. It shows that this year, salmon farms on the west coast killed less than 50,000 herring, a significant drop from the hydrolicer-related deaths in 2021 and 2022, but still higher than the previous 10-year average.

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