Fish-farm firm still focused on Atlantic salmon in B.C. despite shift in Chile

Keven Drews, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - One of the world's largest aquaculture companies is betting future economic growth in Chile on a "robust" species of salmon native to the Pacific but will continue to raise the controversial Atlantic salmon on its British Columbia farms.

Norwegian-based Cermaq has released plans for its economic growth in the South American country, saying coho salmon will become a key component of future growth.

The Chilean industry's Atlantic salmon farms have suffered significant losses due to a strain of infectious salmon anaemia in recent years, and the company said in a news release that coho are robust, less affected by disease and sea lice than their Atlantic cousins or trout, and as a result cost less to farm.

But the company's farms along B.C.'s West Coast will continue to raise Atlantic salmon despite criticism — from environmentalists and in a report on the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye fishery — about the negative impact the Atlantic salmon farms have on wild Pacific fish.

"We're licensed to grow Atlantic salmon," said Grant Warkentin, a spokesman for Cermaq Canada. "That's what the customers want and that's what the company will keep doing."

Cermaq operates 27 ocean and three fresh-water sites in B.C. waters.

Statistics published by the Environment Ministry in B.C. say the province exported $291 million of farmed Atlantic salmon in 2012, down from $320 million in 2010 and nearly $314 million in 2011.

In comparison, the ministry said B.C. exported $11.2 million of farmed chinook in 2012, and $1.1 million of farmed coho that year.

Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said the United States is the main market for Atlantic salmon, although the domestic market remains strong and is growing, and companies are selling fish to China, Japan and Korea.

"It's got a milder flavour, so it has broad appeal in the marketplace," she said.

Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, said she suspects the problem Cermaq is experiencing worldwide is that Atlantic salmon have been treated for sea lice infection for so long that the lice are now resistant to treatment.

"So if they can find fish that are resistant to sea lice then they escape the problem for a period of time, until the sea lice begin to attack the coho as well."

Wristen said the society's focus remains on protecting wild salmon, and that closed-containment systems are the only way to effectively isolate wastes and parasites produced on the farms.

Jay Ritchlin, a spokesman for the David Suzuki Foundation, said sea lice and Atlantic salmon have been a problem in B.C.

He said the concern is that farms amplify sea lice in places where young juvenile wild salmon don't normally find them, the lice are too much for the young salmon and, as a result, impact their populations.

Ritchlin said while the farms have become a little better at managing lice lately, companies are also more dependent on chemicals to contain the problem.

Justice Bruce Cohen found in his report on the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye run in 2009 that the fish faced a "likelihood of harm" from disease and pathogens on farms, especially in the Discovery Islands northeast of Campbell River, between Vancouver Island and the province's mainland.

The BC Salmon Farmers Association, however, has provided regular updates on sea lice numbers for the Okisollo/Hoskyn channels in the Discovery Islands.

The association said in June that of the nine farm sites in the two channels, three were operational the previous month, and one site owned by Marine Harvest Canada at Cyrus Rocks was harvested.

The "treatment threshold" was three lice per fish, and at Cyrus Rocks the count was less than one per fish, the association said.