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Sea Lice and Lousy Excuses

Are a BC ministry and the DFO in cahoots to explain away wild salmon toll?

Rafe Mair 31 Jul

Normally I love a good conspiracy theory. Not this one, I’m afraid.

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that our governments are plotting to dust off the old plans and build a dam on the Fraser River, making us power and water rich in the bargain and that this explains why the provincial Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are deliberately neglectful of our salmon resource. No salmon – no environmental concerns about a dam.

Rafe’s gone mad? Maybe but let me offer another bit of evidence to chew on.

First, let me ask you to place your hand on the table with the fingers parted. Imagine that the four spaces are inlets and the fingers are the shore line or, in this case, closely knit islands. Imagine that out of rivers entering these inlets, every spring, come hundreds of thousands of tiny Pink salmon smolts en route to the ocean. Now imagine that as these little fish, in passing through the “fingers” to the ocean, must pass scores of fish farms containing hundreds of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon which provide hosts for millions of sea lice. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with sea lice in the Broughton Archipelago.

The solution is simple – get rid of these fish cages. Unhappily, around this issue has developed a modern Mad Hatters Tea Party involving DFO, MAFF, the fish farmers and Alexandra Morton, (who, like Alice, is the only one in the scenario who makes sense!)

Battling biologist

Alexandra Morton, a biologist who lives in the area, made a horrible observation a few years ago. The Pink salmon fry were being set upon and slaughtered by sea lice. She naturally posited the theory that these lice were coming from the fish farms. She also predicted the failure of that year’s Pink salmon run which prediction was tragically fulfilled. In the interval at least four runs of Pinks have been beset by lice going out, and they were all but wiped out. Even more chilling, perhaps, is Alexandra’s prediction that both the 2005 and 2006 runs of Pinks are goners too. Add to this the overheard remark of a MAFF that the wild salmon values were not enough to justify the removal of the fish cages.

If that were the entire story, that would be bad enough. But what I think clinches my conspiracy theory is this – every single independent study, meaning studies by scientists that have been peer reviewed and published in prestigious journals, has confirmed Alexandra Morton’s conclusions that the sea lice from the fish farms are slaughtering the salmon.

Blue ribbon findings

The DFO and MAFF and the politicians up to and including Premier Campbell are in denial – perhaps understandable considering how much the fish farm industry gives the Liberals every year.

It should also be noted that the same thing happened in Norway, Scotland and Ireland.

The last report on Broughton, by a blue ribbon scientific panel led by Dr. John Volpe of UBC, traced the lice directly to the responsible fish farms and these findings were published by the Royal Society in London. They’ve been supported by every independent scientist in the world who is familiar with the subject, including Dr. Dan Pawley of UBC, named by TIME magazine as one of the top 50 scientists in the world.

What have the governments done in these circumstances? Notwithstanding the independent evidence, and having none of their own to contradict, they’ve nevertheless embarked upon a policy of harassing Ms. Morton, denying overseas reports and simply refusing to accept the independent evidence of our own independent scientists. DFO scientists, we have reason to believe, support the independent scientific findings but are suppressed by their politically controlled seniors.

The reaction of the fish farming companies is interesting. “There are no lice” they say until you point out that for years they have been using a highly poisonous compound, called Slice, consumed by the farmed fish, to get rid of this problem that doesn’t exist!

“If there are lice”, say the farmers, “they are a different sort of louse than the ones that attack the Pink salmon smolts” (all the while denying that any lice are attacking the smolts. The suggestion is so preposterous that even they have abandoned it.

“The problem is”, they say, “that although we deny we have any lice, the ones that are attacking the salmon (of course we still deny that any lice are hitting the salmon) are passed over to the smolts by lice off sticklebacks!” If this utterly incredible story is true, where, one asks, did the lice come from? “Ah”, say the farmers, “these must come from the wild because, of course, we don’t have any sea lice”. Are you beginning to notice the smirking Mad Hatter?

In 2003, under extreme pressure, the DFO and MAFF forced several farms on the migrating Pink salmon route to lie fallow and guess what? The salmon run made it out and back! (Incidentally, the farmers and their partners the DFO and the MAFF, despite this, still even deny that there are migrating routes!)

Skeena next?

Now, the really interesting part which comes close to tying up my conspiracy theory in a neat little package. The fish farmers and their government pals want to introduce fish farms to the Skeena River area, the Skeena being our second most productive salmon river. In order to lull the locals to sleep, the industry and their government toadies have told the community that there is no problem with sea lice as witness the recent good run of Pink salmon in 2004 – highest in history they say - in the Broughton Archipelago.

Apart from the niggling detail that the run was far from being historic these professional prevaricators don’t tell the good people of the North that this was the run where they fallowed the fish farms so the Pink smolts could escape lice free!

I remember interviewing Dr. Patrick Gargan, head of the sea lice control program in Galway, Eire (who, incidentally reviewed and approved Ms. Morton’s findings) and he told my listeners that the fish farmers and governments would attribute the wiping out of salmon runs to sun spots, warm water, cold water, mackerel predation, phases of the moon and every imaginable thing and would only admit the obvious cause, sea lice from the cages, after the damage was done whereupon they would pronounce themselves as saviours by promising to produce sufficient wild, unhealthy, Atlantic salmon to make up for the lost wild salmon – a bit like the man who murders his parents pleading for leniency on the grounds that he’s an orphan.

The anger, frustration, sadness and incredulity all of us who want to save our wild Pacific Salmon reminds me of the great saying of H.L. Mencken: “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats”.

Rafe Mair’s column for The Tyee runs every Monday. He can be heard every weekday morning from 8:30-10:30 on 600AM. His website is  [Tyee]

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