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Fish farm industry denies keeping 'secret' data on sea lice epidemic

Earlier today, environmental activists paddling from Hope to Vancouver for the start of the evidentiary hearings at the Cohen Commission requested the fish farm industry release sea lice records for the last 10 years.

But B.C. Salmon Farmers Association director Mary Ellen Walling says that this information is already available online. A quick search on Marine Harvest, B.C.'s largest aquaculture company, proved her right. Graphics showing sea lice averages can be found for specific fish farms over a five year period.

The industry also released the sea lice data for 21 fish farms over the last five years upon request by Justice Bruce Cohen. It already stated that it would comply with the commission if more data is needed.

Activists and environmentalists accuse the fish farm industry of being responsible for the decline of the sockeye salmon and expect the commission to raise this issue.

The fish farm association denies this hypothesis. "Our salmons are going in the ocean lice-free," said Walling. "The fact that we now have a record return means there's something else happening in the broader ocean," she added.

On its website, the DFO also notes that there's been significant fluctuations in the number of pink salmon returns since 1953 -- well before the introduction of salmon farms in 1987 -- and a decline in the level of sea lice since 2004.

Many factors will be taken into account by the Cohen Commission. During today's session, the chief biologist of the Pacific Salmon Commission, Mike Lapointe, pointed out that the variation in marine survival could result in returns that differ by a factor of nearly a hundred. Over the last 20 years, returns varied from 23.4 per cent to 0.3 per cent. "That's the variation at a marine stage that can create those variations," he told commissioner Bruce Cohen. Only 1.8 million sockeye salmon returned to the Fraser River in 2009, while more than 34 million returned to the Fraser this year.

-Francis Plourde is a freelance Vancouver writer and an occasional contributor to The Tyee.

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