Salmon Farms Killed 817,000 Herring in Canada in One Year

These drastic numbers are alarming especially considering the fact that open net-pens are meant to be closing all around BC. Photo credit: Clayoquot Sound

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) recently revealed that 817,000 wild fish, mostly herring, were killed in open net-pen Atlantic salmon farm operations in 2022. This number is almost five times the number reported in 2021 and over 20 times the number reported in 2020.

Cermaq Canada, a Norwegian fish farming conglomerate owned by Mitsubishi, is responsible for a significant number of these herring deaths through their farming activities in Clayoquot Sound on western Vancouver Island.

What Exactly is Killing the Wild Fish?

Fish farms are notorious for their lice problem. Because the farmed fish are kept in such high densities, parasite growth and transmission are greatly increased.

In an attempt to control the infestation, farms resort to “hydrolicing”, an indiscriminate, rough, and mechanical method used to delouse farmed fish en masse. A hydrolicer is essentially a barge that vacuums up the fish and power washes the lice off of them.

Other effects of hydrolicing: The powerful spray of the hydrolicer strips away the mucosal layer on salmon skin, resulting in a visible white residue on the surface of the water. Photo credit: Clayoquot Action.

But because these farms are open net-pen farms, scores of wild fish have no choice but to navigate through them as they migrate or move about. This means that when “hydrolicing” commences, tons of wild fish, especially juveniles, get sucked up in the process and are killed. It’s a violent death.

In 2022, Dan Lewis, Executive Director of Clayoquot Action, and his team were monitoring one of Cermaq’s fish farms near Tofino and counted hundreds of dead herring in the vicinity on that day alone.

“We noticed small fish bubbling up to the surface beside the hydrolicer, so we scooped them up in a net. To our surprise, they were tiny juvenile herring, with their eyes blown out. It was really hard to witness that – I broke down and cried,” said Dan Lewis. Photo credit: Clayoquot Action

A Critical Juncture for Herring

As a keystone species in BC’s coastal food web and with four of the five major herring populations in BC having declined to historically low levels, herring are actually protected to some extent in BC.

In fact, there have been recent calls for a moratorium on herring fishing as experts warn of stock collapse, which has resulted in most commercial herring fisheries being closed in BC, including the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Vancouver Island is no stranger to mass herring deaths. A screengrab from a CBC News video shows thousands of dead herring covering the floor of Deep Bay, near Bowser on Vancouver Island in 2021. An anonymous tip had gone out that a commercial fishing vessel had dumped its load of netted herring. Image credit: CBC News

Repercussions for Wild Fish Deaths

The federal Fisheries Minister has promised to deliver a transition plan to remove salmon farms from BC waters by 2025. This plan, however, has been delayed as it was not released in the summer 2023 as originally planned.

BC Premier David Eby is also in favour of the fish farm closures. “For the net-pen fish farms, I think it’s safe to say that the social licence for those that just sit in the ocean and cause the death of other fish has expired,” said Eby.

Will the government hold their promise and take action? If the current trajectory continues, we can only expect herring deaths to increase every year. BC’s herring population – and the ecosystem that relies on them – is running out of time.

Read this Skeena article for more information.