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Sea lions break into B.C. fish farms, worrying conservationists who say they could drown

By Melanie Nagy, CTV National News Vancouver Bureau Chief

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    Vancouver, Canada (CTV Network) — A group of ravenous sea lions is devouring farmed salmon after breaking into several aquaculture facilities off Vancouver Island in recent weeks, worrying conservationists who say the situation could be deadly for the marine mammals.

Nearly a dozen sea lions, which are known for their intelligence, have managed to break into at least two farms belonging to Cermaq.

They were most recently spotted on May 17 inside net pens at the Japanese-owned company’s Bedwell farm north of Tofino, B.C.

“Sea lions are very smart and very interactive, so if they see an opportunity like easy prey, they are going to try to figure things out, but the danger to them is they could get trapped,” veterinarian Martin Haulena said.

Haulena is a well-known Canadian marine mammal expert who heads the Vancouver Aquarium’s animal health program. He says the sea lions target the farms because they are filled with thousands of adult Atlantic salmon. However, he is quick to add that the easy feeding ground can turn deadly if an animal gets tangled in the enclosure’s numerous nets.

“We’ve had animals drown in nets and sea pens before,” said Haulena. “I think the issue is really about exclusion and being careful with the gear to make sure sea lions can’t get trapped inside the farms.”

Since 2007, dozens of sea lions have died after getting caught in fish farm nets. There have also been humpback whales that have become entangled, with at least one drowning in November 2016.

“They’re strangulated by the net itself,” said Living Oceans Society executive director Karen Wristen. “There is a very real risk of injury and we have lost an awful lot of animals to that kind of death.”

The most recent trouble involving sea lions started in March on Cermaq’s Rant Point farm, which is also not far from Tofino. At that facility, there were nearly two dozen animals feasting on fish from multiple pens.

In response to that breach, Cermaq provided a written statement to CTV News saying the sea lions managed to get in by “jumping over the stanchions.” The company also said it did not feel the animals were “trapped from exiting the farm.”

As for how they entered the Bedwell farm, Cermaq did not respond to requests for additional information by the time of publication.

Adult sea lions are voracious eaters, and according to World Wildlife Fund Canada, they consume on average about six per cent of their body weight every day.

So far, there have not been any reports of deaths linked to the latest fish farm break ins, but Fisheries and Oceans Canada is monitoring the situation.

Department staff visited the Bedwell facility on May 12 to observe sea lion activity, and at the time approximately 10 were spotted within the farm’s netting system.

The challenge now for DFO and Cermaq is how to safely remove the animals from the facility and keep them from returning

A spokesperson for Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, told CTV News that “aquaculture licences come with strict conditions that require operators to ensure as little risk to marine mammals, including sea lions, as possible.”

Some of the tools currently being used to scare the animals away include the use of “deterrent noise, such as an air cannon, above the water.”

B.C.’s fish farm industry is controversial, and there’s an on-going battle to have all facilities in the province removed.

“This industry is unable to prevent marine mammals from getting into their farms,” said Clayoquot Action executive director Dan Lewis. “For me this highlights the fact that open net pen salmon farming is incompatible with Clayoquot Sound.”

Lewis’ organization is a conservation society committed to protecting “biocultural diversity” within the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is filled with a diverse range of ecosystems, including “temperate coastal rainforest, ocean and rocky coastal shores.”

“We’ve seen sea lions, humpback whales, various marine mammals getting trapped in fish farms here in the biosphere reserve, which is a world-famous place for wildlife viewing.”

Lewis has long opposed fish farming and is calling on the federal government to remove all facilities in Clayoquot Sound.

During the last election campaign, the federal Liberals promised to phase-out open-net pen farms by 2025. First Nations opposition and environmental concerns are said to have formed the foundation of the decision.

The industry, which is represented by the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, is opposed to any shutdown.

“This is a farming sector that is looking to provide sustainable high quality protein and its innovating to make sure that we continue to find the safest and most sustainable way to do that,” said the association’s science and policy director Brian Kingzett. “Fish farming is an important industry in B.C. because we are facing a global food supply problem.”

According to the association, the sector is the province’s number one seafood export and is “designated an essential service by federal and provincial governments.” The industry also says it generates “$1.2 billion in economic activity” and if unable to operate then “more than 4,700 jobs at risk in communities” like Courtenay, Comox, Port Alberni and Tofino.”

“We simply do not have enough fish in the ocean and we can’t continue to harvest wild salmon, or wild fish of any amount in the way we have to meet population demand,” said Kingzett. “We’re also trying to find economic opportunities in areas of Vancouver Island that have been depressed because of the declines in jobs for our resource extraction sectors, sothis is a sector that is very important.”

All 79 federal finfish aquaculture licences expire on June 30, 2022. The government is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether those licences get renewed.

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