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Sea lions are baaaaack…

On a recent Clayoquot Salmon Investigation (CSI) mission, the sharp eyes of skipper Skookum John noticed something trapped under the walkway. Sure enough, we were able to determine that it was a sea lion. And there were more in the pens, trying to feed on the farmed salmon. That day we saw 6+ sea lions trapped in Cermaq’s Bedwell East fish farm, and another under a walkway at their Plover Point facility. And they were still there a week later…

This is the same fiasco that CSI exposed back in spring. Cermaq had dozens of sea lions trapped in their pens—for weeks. The industry self-reports marine mammal mortalities to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Records from this spring show two sea lions drowned at Cermaq’s Rant Point facility.

Sea lice treatments allowing animals in?

Sea lice on fish farms are out of control. Traditional treatments are no longer working. So companies like Cermaq are using huge vessels to power-wash lice off their farmed salmon. Those vessels are crushing the walkways at Cermaq’s facilities, making it easier for the sea lions to gain access. And the nets surrounding the pen must be lowered, making it easy for sea lions to get in. Sea lice are not going away, so neither will sea lions be leaving fish farms anytime soon.

As skipper Skookum John reminds us, getting into the pens to feed on salmon is a learned behaviour. It will not be un-learned! And Cermaq has demonstrated (again) that they are unable to keep sea lions out of the pens. Once the animals get inside, they can become injured, entangled, or drown.

A new era for predator control

All of this was much easier in the bad ol’ days. The companies simply shot predators such as sea lions. In one incident in 2015, Cermaq shot and killed 15 sea lions in a two-day period.

DFO no longer licences fish farms to kill invading marine mammals. They leave it to the producers to figure out how to keep sea lions out of the pens. Which leaves very few options, once they are in the pens.

And then there are export regulations. The United States is a major market for Canadian farmed salmon producers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tries to prevent the import of seafood which harms marine mammals in its production. (Think dolphins in canned tuna.) Canadian salmon farms are considered an “Exempt” fishery, because there is “no known or a remote likelihood of marine mammal by-catch”.

Clearly, things have changed here in Clayoquot Sound. Maybe it’s time to re-visit those regulations—clearly sea lions will continue to get into fish farms. This poses a risk both to the animals themselves, and for the workers who are left to deal with wild animals weighing two thousand pounds each, who do not want to leave their treasured source of easy living.

One simple solution to prevent marine mammals from being harmed is to remove salmon farms from the ocean. The federal government has committed to doing exactly that. Now is the time to add your voice. Let the Fisheries Minister know you expect nothing less than total removal of salmon farms from BC waters, by 2025, as promised.

Dan Lewis is Executive Director of Clayoquot Action.

Feature image by Don Weerdenburg.

Photo by Jérémy Mathieu / Clayoquot Action

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