The Truth About Salmon Farming and Sea Lice

By Pamela Parker
Just enough to fill a one-ounce shot glass.

That’s the approximate amount of approved chemical that Atlantic salmon farmers use to treat sea lice in an entire net pen.

And that bath treatment, which has been approved for use only after rigorous risk assessments and studies by federal and provincial regulators and scientists, is used only as a last resort, usually in a closed system and only under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Misconceptions about salmon farming have abounded in recent months, with the most notable mistaken notion being that farmers are haphazardly dumping chemicals into the ocean.

That is just not the case.

Atlantic Canada’s salmon farmers are committed to building the most responsible and
innovative aquaculture industry in the world. Although we already work in a heavily regulated industry, we continually strive to do more to ensure the health of our fish, to protect the marine environment and to grow high-quality and healthy food.

Why?

Because we are local people who have built this industry over the past 30 years and we care about its future and about the marine environment in which we live and work. If we don’t care about sustainability, then we can’t farm, and our neighbours can’t fish, and the ocean we love won’t be here in its present form for our children and grandchildren.

We recognize that traditional fishers and others have questions and concerns about our industry, especially about how we manage sea lice. We have worked hard through farm tours, media releases and our participation on working groups with the traditional fishery to share information about our sea lice management practises and on research and monitoring results, but yet, misinformation about our industry continues to show up everywhere.

We are concerned about these misconceptions and would like to share some information about our sea lice management practices.

Sea lice are a naturally occurring marine parasite found on a variety of fish stocks around the world but their populations vary from area to area. For example, salmon on farms in Nova Scotia have never been treated for sea lice while salmon in some areas of New Brunswick, like Grand Manan, were treated only once or twice this year. Sea lice do not pose a human health risk, but high levels of sea lice harm our fish and make them vulnerable to other potentially fatal infections.

Prevention has always been – and always will be – our first line of defence against sea lice. We’ve developed farm management practises to reduce the likelihood and severity of sea lice, including selecting sites with good water circulation, reducing stocking densities, regularly fallowing production sites and ensuring that only salmon born in a single year are grown at each farm site.

Like all other farmers, however, we sometimes have to rely on the professional advice of veterinarians who can prescribe approved treatments when our animals are infected with disease or threatened by parasites.

All products used to treat sea lice in Atlantic Canada undergo extensive risk assessments by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency to ensure they do not harm the environment or non-target species such as lobster. Every product we use is strictly regulated and available only through a prescription by a veterinarian. The amount of active ingredient that is mixed with seawater in a bath treatment is extremely small and the treatments are delivered most often in closed systems. In fact, Canadians use similar products in larger quantities to treat head lice and bed bugs.

The Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association does not condone the use of any product that has not been approved by the appropriate regulators. We do not know why trace amounts of cypermethrin, which is not approved for use in Canada, were detected in the Bay of Fundy, but we are cooperating fully with Environment Canada’s investigation. What we do know from monitoring and research is that the products our farmers use do not harm the environment or non-target species.

During and following the use of the approved treatment Salmosan in the late 1990s, lobster landings in New Brunswick continued to increase. A comprehensive monitoring and surveillance program in New Brunswick in 2009 found the approved treatment AlphaMax was effective in treating sea lice with no effect on non-target species such as lobster and that no disruption to the normal life cycle of lobster was observed in the field at all stages of development. Some of these lobsters are still being monitored in the lab for long term impacts.

In addition, AlphaMax has been used in Norway since 1997 and cumulative impact studies have shown no impact on their shrimp or crab fishery.  Managing sea lice is complex because farmers must deal with a wide range of biological and environmental factors including the various life stages of lice and variances in water temperatures. Some approved treatments don’t work well on certain life stages of louse or in certain water temperatures.

Other salmon producing countries such as Norway, Chile and Scotland have had access to four or more sea lice treatment options for many years. However, here in Atlantic Canada, the aquaculture sector – unlike the agriculture sector – does not have a variety of products approved for use in treating parasites or disease. Between 2000-2008, New Brunswick salmon farmers had access to only one approved product, SLICE, which is an in-feed treatment.  For months now, we’ve been working with federal and provincial regulators, veterinarians as well as industry and fishery organizations to develop an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPMP). An integrated approach combines our current preventative farming practises with access to a variety of approved treatments that farmers can use strategically based on the life stage of the louse and environmental factors such as water temperatures. This approach will allow farmers to use the right product at the right time, thus reducing the amount of treatments used.

In 2010 we did see a higher than normal sea lice abundance in one area of New Brunswick, due to higher than normal water temperatures and our inability to follow an integrated approach because we did not obtain regulatory approvals for products when we needed them. Fish health professionals have shown that sea lice abundance is not related to the number of farms in an area or to stocking densities, which have already been reduced by 50 per cent in recent years.

Without approvals to use the right products at the right time, farmers were left with just one bath treatment option – Salmosan – from October 2009 to July 2010. This meant we couldn’t target our treatments and were forced to use far more of this one product than we had planned. Our records show New Brunswick farmers used just over 400kg of the active ingredient - equivalent to about 20 bags of dog food - to treat 200 net pens of salmon in the Bay of Fundy during those eight months. We want to and can use less. If we have enough treatments so that we can use the right product at the right time as part of an integrated approach to managing the health of our fish, we can reduce the amount of products by 50 per cent. That is why we have invested millions of dollars in green technologies like tarps and well- boats for the delivery of sea lice bath treatments in enclosed systems.

We’ve invested over $1 million to support monitoring and research to make sure we understand potential impacts on the environment and on non-target species in collaboration with federal and provincial regulators, the Atlantic Veterinary College and private research institutions. We’re also investing in research into other green technologies such as sea lice traps, cleaner fish and Ecobath systems.

We share our information on treatments, our research findings and our monitoring work in a variety of ways with fisheries organizations and other groups. We have invited those stakeholders to attend meetings in the past; we will continue to do so. We have sought their input into future research; we will continue to do so.

We’ve grown our industry into one of this region’s major economic drivers. Our farms are owned and operated by local people and our working families are part of the social fabric of our coastal communities. Let is work together as neighbours so that we can farm for the future – yours and ours.

Pamela Parker is the Executive Director of the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association (formerly known as the New Brunswick Salmon Growers’ Association). The ACFFA is an industry- funded association that works on behalf of the salmon farming industry in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It represents over 95 per cent of salmon production in the Maritime region in addition to a wide range of supporting companies and organizations.