Sea lice epidemic haunts Nova Scotia’s newest farmed salmon giant


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As an epidemic sea lice infestation at their industrial salmon farms in British Columbia rages unchecked, Mitsubishi-owned Cermaq company wants to bring up to 20 open-pen salmon fish farms to Nova Scotia, adding to the environmental dangers already posed by the massive expansion of New Brunswick-based multinational Cooke Aquaculture over recent years.

Cooke farms in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Chile have also been plagued by outbreaks of sea lice and the deadly infectious salmon anemia (ISA), resulting in the forced slaughter of millions of market-ready salmon.

The outbreaks, which threaten the health of young wild salmon, have brought renewed calls for stricter regulations and the removal of open-net pens from the ocean. Managing such epidemics continues to be a troublesome and expensive battle for the global industry and its regulators.

Alexandra Morton, an independent researcher who has warned the DFO about sea lice epidemics for 19 years, said she hasn’t seen levels this high since 2001 in wild young smolts that she and other researchers sample near the shoreline.

The Tyee reported recently that Cermaq applied to Health Canada for an emergency permit to use a new treatment called Lufenuron. The drug is commonly used to control fleas in pet dogs and cats.

Norway, home to the biggest salmon farming industry and annual sea lice plagues, hasn’t approved the chemical.

Morton said that Norwegian researchers told her there are concerns that the chemical makes fish unsafe for human consumption. The Health Canada permit allowing Cermaq to use Lufenuron says it has to wait 350 days after the last use before harvesting the fish.

An internal DFO memorandum prepared for the deputy minister in 2018 concluded that “currently management approaches have been ineffective to reduce sea lice loads” and called for reforms.

The aquaculture industry unnaturally concentrates large populations of farmed fish in one location, where they act as incubators for parasites and pathogens and, according to a new report by IntraFish, sea lice cost the industry as much as $1 billion a year in damage to farmed fish.

In 2012, Glenn Cooke and two other Cooke executives pleaded guilty of federal felony charges of dumping banned pesticides in the Bay of Fundy to combat sea lice problems in salmon cages there. The arrests resulted in a fine of $500,000.

Cermaq’s plans are a signal that yet another global salmon farming company wants virtually free access to the untapped and pristine Nova Scotia coastline.

Cermaq Canada says it is looking at spending hundreds of millions of dollars to open up the massive fish farms in areas they are currently investigating: Chedabucto Bay in Guysborough County, Bay of Rocks in Richmond County and St. Marys Bay south of Digby.

The $1.1 billion Japanese-owned firm says it needs one to two dozen fish farms with an annual output of 20,000 metric tonnes to justify operating here, where it says it would also open a hatchery and processing plant, resulting in 300-350 jobs.

In what now appears to be a ploy to obtain $25 million in loans and grants from the Nova Scotia government several years ago, Cooke also promised a hatchery, processing plant and 300-400 jobs in Shelburne County. Those facilities and jobs never materialized

Cermaq, which operates 27 fish farm sites in British Columbia, says if it proceeds, the first fish would be in the water by 2024/25. Cermaq officials told CBC it will take six months to a year to decide whether Nova Scotia is a good fit for the company and the company a good fit for Nova Scotia.

Cooke Seafood is the largest fish farm operator in the province and wants to expand in Nova Scotia, starting in Liverpool Bay, where it has applied to substantially increase its operations. Those plans have meet with widespread opposition by many in the local community

Recently, CEO Glenn Cooke said his firm needs to harvest 30,000 metric tonnes of salmon annually in Nova Scotia to justify reviving plans to build a processing plant and expanded feed mill in the province, that he assured government would take place in 2013.

Cooke told CBC that the reception of its expansion in Liverpool Bay will be a test of Nova Scotia’s willingness to accept fish farming.

Opponents, who say fish farming is environmentally damaging and have formed Protect Liverpool Bay, have already opened an office to fight the Liverpool Bay expansion.

Nova Scotia Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Keith Colwell told CBC that “big fish farms are interested in Nova Scotia’s pristine, clean water.”

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Photo: Alexandra Morton