For the first time ever, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has posted fish farm reports of mammal killings on its website, and some find the numbers shocking.
In the first quarterly period from Jan.-March 2011, posted on the website on Aug. 24, DFO issued permits to kill 141 California sea lions, 37 harbour seals, and two Steller sea lions.
Catherine Stewart, with Living Oceans Society, said the numbers worry her.
“The fact that they are acknowledging shooting and killing over 140 of them in just the first quarter alone seems to indicate that the problem is not getting better, it’s getting worse,” said Stewart of the California sea lions. “What is the number going to be for the entire year? Why is it so high?”
B.C. Salmon Farmers Association executive director Mary Ellen Walling said California sea lion populations are on the rise around Vancouver Island, creating more interaction between the mammals and farms. She said lethal control is used as a “last resort,” and pointed out that the animals can be dangerous to humans as well as the farms themselves.
“They can be a threat to the farm structures obviously – they can rip into the nets, they can potentially cause escapes – but also they can be quite aggressive towards humans,” said Walling.
DFO issues the permits to kill California sea lions and harbour seals because the populations are considered stable, according to DFO communications advisor Michelle Imbeau.
However, Steller sea lions are listed under the federal Species at Risk Act, but can be killed when the farm makes a special request to DFO. Steller sea lion lethal control permits are considered on a case by case basis.
While Stewart acknowledged California sea lion and harbour seal populations are stable right now, she pointed out that the basking shark population used to be stable in B.C. but the fish are now endangered because commercial fishers were allowed to kill them when they got caught in their nets.
“It would seem that the populations are healthy, but I think we only have to look at our history as a species to see what happens when we think animals are abundant,” said Stewart.
Walling said that farms near Tofino had an increase in killings about five years ago when the mammal populations in the area rose; predator barriers around the farms were strengthened in response, and the amount of problems, and kills, decreased.
According to Walling, farms on East Vancouver Island are now working to do the same.
“We’re expecting the numbers to decline as we go forward,” said Walling.
DFO will continue posting the quarterly reports, with the second one coming sometime this fall, according to Imbeau. DFO will also post summary information of mammal deaths from past years “in the coming months,” and is taking steps to monitor farms and work with the industry to decrease the number of kills.
“DFO staff will also be visiting farm sites prior to and during the peak marine mammal season to specifically inspect the marine mammal mitigation methods in use,” said Imbeau.
“A working group comprised of DFO staff and industry representatives has recently been established with a goal of reducing the level of marine mammal interactions at aquaculture facilities.”
Stewart said she doesn’t doubt the numbers will go down, but added that the killing of these marine mammals adds to a long list of reasons – including the controversial possibility of the wild salmon decline – that this type of fish farming should stop.
“It’s just another indication that net cage technology is not sustainable, and they need to accept that and start planning to transition to closed systems where they won’t have these kind of problems.”