Salmon farming and sea lice

Gloved hand

Recent work by Martin Krkosek of the University of Alberta has demonstrated strong links between the practice of salmon aquaculture and the incidence of sea lice infestations that threaten wild populations. One study used mathematically coupled datasets on the transmission of sea lice (Lepeophtheirus salmonis) on migratory pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) and chum (Oncorhynchus keta) salmon. They concluded that:

Farm-origin lice induced 9–95% mortality in several sympatric wild juvenile pink and chum salmon populations. The epizootics arise through a mechanism that is new to our understanding of emerging infectious diseases: fish farms undermine a functional role of host migration in protecting juvenile hosts from parasites associated with adult hosts. Although the migratory life cycles of Pacific salmon naturally separate adults from juveniles, fish farms provide L. salmonis novel access to juvenile hosts, in this case raising infection rates for at least the first 2.5 months of the salmon’s marine life (80 km of the migration route).

Packing fish together in pens that are open to the sea is an almost ideal mechanism for breeding and distributing parasites and disease. In nature, you would never find salmon packed 25,000 to an acre. Keeping them in such conditions – and making them grow as quickly as possible – generally requires chemical manipulation. The earlier discussion here about antibiotic use and its role in the emergence of resistant bacteria is relevant.

These concerns also exist in addition to the fundamental reason for which fish farming cannot be sustainable: it relies on catching smaller and less tasty fish to feed to the tastier carnivorous fish that people enjoy. It thus lets us strip the sea bare of salmon or cod or trout and compensate for some period of time by using cheaper fish as a factor for their intensive production. Given that those cheaper fish are caught unsustainably, however, fish farming simply delays the emergence of truly empty oceans. And the industry is trying to have farmed salmon labelled ‘organic.’ Ludicrous.

Source: Krkosek, Martin et al. “Epizootics of wild fish induced by farm fish.” Proceedings of the National Association of Sciences. October 17, 2006, vol. 103, no. 42, 15506-15510.

P.S. Shifting Baselines also has some commentary on sea lice and salmon farming.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “Salmon farming and sea lice”

  1. “If nothing changes we are going to lose these fish,” Mr. Krkosek said of the wild pink salmon stocks in the Broughton. “The population growth rate for the pink salmon in the Broughton during the infestations has been significantly negative. … extinction probability is 100 per cent and the only question is how long that’s going to take.”

    He estimated the stocks will be locally extinct within four years.

  2. “It’s the first time that we’ve had enough detailed data to actually measure the effect of sea lice on wild salmon populations,” said Mr. Krkosek, who looked at DFO records dating from 1970 for 71 salmon rivers.

    “What we found is that before the sea-lice infestations began in the Broughton, the pink-salmon populations there were just fine. They had positive population growth rates. … But when the sea-lice infestations began, and they have been recurrent since then, we measured a sharp decline in the population growth rate.”

    Mr. Krkosek said wild-salmon populations in an area just north of the Broughton, where there are no salmon farms near spawning rivers, have continued to thrive.

  3. To play devil’s advocate for a moment:

    If we can get all the salmon we need from farms, what is the importance of the wild populations?

  4. Nature 451, 23-24 (3 January 2008) | doi:10.1038/451023a; Published online 2 January 2008

    Aquaculture: The price of lice

    Andrew A. Rosenberg

    Wild salmon stocks in Canadian coastal waters are being severely affected by parasites from fish farms. So intense are these infestations that some populations of salmon are at risk of extinction.

  5. during a fishing trip the other week in north wales,uk I found myself lucky enough to catch a salmon. My first thought was “is it not a bit late in the year to be catching salmon and brought on concerns of prehaps global warming affecting the way fish behave. expecially as we have just had our second bloom this year which is a verry unusal affair, I have been told this is another cause of global warming. Upon further inspection of the salmon it did have these “tic like creatures” on one side which i now know are sea lice. it was a fairly large sized salmon at 5 and a half pouns but looked fit and healthy. i know these lice only really affect the baby salmon but what percentage of wild salmon are dying due to reasons of these lice. and should we not be more concerned about other matters such as global warming and overfishing.

  6. A special report on the sea
    Come, friends, and plough the sea

    Dec 30th 2008
    From The Economist print edition
    But make sure farmed fish are veggies

    “FOR most of man’s existence he has been a hunter-gatherer. These days, however, it is as a farmer that he harvests almost all his food from the land. Now he has started farming the sea, too. The world produced 48 billion tonnes of farmed fish in 2005, worth $71 billion. That was 34% of the total, a proportion that is likely to rise to half by 2010. A huge variety of fish, including cod, crayfish, bream, halibut, mussels, salmon, sea bass and sturgeon, are all farmed, providing jobs and food for people all over the world.

    Unfortunately, fish farming is still in its infancy and in some places may do more harm than good. In Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and other parts of Asia, huge swathes of coastline have been denuded of trees to make way for ponds and pens. Many fish farms create pollution, too. Even if the water in which the fish are reared starts out fresh, the build-up of faeces and uneaten food soon makes it foul. The mix is made even nastier by the pesticides and antibiotics needed to keep the crop alive. And to cap it all, aquaculture produces CO2 and gobbles up energy.”

  7. B.C. fish farms to kill 300,000 salmon

    CTV British Columbia
    Published Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012 10:32AM PDT

    Two B.C. fish farms have received orders from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to kill more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon after the IHN virus was confirmed at both sites.
    The BC Salmon Farmers Association said in a release the virus has now been confirmed at Mainstream Canada’s Millar Channel farm north of Tofino and Grieg Seafood’s Culloden Point farm in Jervis Inlet on the Sunshine Coast.

    “The first priority for these companies is to work with CFIA to ensure that any depopulation is done quickly and safely,” said Mary Ellen Walling, Executive Director of the BCSFA.
    Both companies tested positive for IHN last week during routine tests and followup tests confirmed the findings.
    In June, Mainstream Canada culled more than 560,000 fish at one of its Dixon Bay farm, north of Tofino.

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