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Sea lice ‘epidemic’ affects NASDAQ index

Out-of-control lice-infestation of Scottish and Norwegian farmed fish causes salmon price-hike


The effect of sea-lice is being felt across the world, as farmed salmon production plummets due to infestation, and prices rise.
The effect of sea-lice is being felt across the world, as farmed salmon production plummets due to infestation, and prices rise.

The sea lice problem from fish farms, of which UK wild game fishers are so acutely aware, is now causing ripples across the world. Only this time, the ripples are neither complaints nor accusations, and they are neither yet another scientific paper, nor another spin from the fish farmer's PR department. This time, it is the economy that is speaking out.

The NASDAQ (American Stock Exchange) Salmon Index has shown that, over the past 12 weeks the price of salmon has risen by 13.51 per cent, and this adds to last year's price-hike of 40%. The reason is due to the fact that two major suppliers, Norway and Scotland, are struggling to cope with a sea lice 'epidemic' which is killing fish and reducing production.

In Norway last year, the Financial Times reported that an uncontrolled outbreak of sea lice killed 6% of Norway's farmed salmon population. The problem is that the sea lice have developed a resistance to the chemicals the fish farmers have been using over the past two decades. In Scotland, despite a 35% increase in production since 2002, the use of chemicals to treat sea lice has risen by 1000%, and yet the farmers still cannot get lice levels under control. In desperation, the farmers have developed a 'thermo-licer' which uses a heat-shock system to force the lice to fall off the fish. However, as every fish farmer is well aware, rapid changes in temperature are very dangerous for fish, and more than 175,000 salmon died when the water they were swimming in was overheated, prompting calls for those responsible to be prosecuted for cruelty. A Freedom of Information request revealed that in one single incident 95,400 salmon were killed at a Marine Harvest farm in Loch Greshornish, on the Isle of Skye, in the summer. Overall, catastrophes on farms run by the Norwegian multinational, Marine Harvest led to over 600 tonnes of dead salmon having to be incinerated. These deaths were largely responsible for a 16 per cent drop in the company’s Scottish salmon production.

This worldwide production loss was compounded in Chile, which is the second largest salmon producer in the world, when 135,000 tons of salmon were wiped out by a huge algal bloom – that's 28.3 million fish, according to the Financial Times – which also reports that worldwide salmon production fell by 8.7% in 2016.

As the news breaks, the public image of salmon farming is taking a beating. Flesh-eating lice do not make for appetising reading, and neither does a massive price-hike. An article in the Washington Post headed, 'The gross reason your salmon is about to get (even more) expensive' after explaining how the sea lice feed on and kill the salmon, states: "In the near future, it only promises to get worse. And the dying fish and rising prices could fan the debate about whether growing salmon in giant ocean farms is sustainable." And it's about time this argument was aired worldwide.

Meanwhile, calls from the wild fish lobby for farmers to control their lice levels this spring will be justifiably heightened as wild smolts migrate from their natal rivers and into lice-infested coastal waters. A recent scientific paper has proved that sea trout in the proximity of fish farms are more vulnerable to lice. The authors, Dr Paddy Gargan, Dr Sam Shephard and Craig MacIntyre deduce the results "imply a rather general impact of salmon farming on lice infestation and body condition of sea trout" (see March issue FF&FT, out on February 10). The report's authors say it will have ramifications relating to current lice control management strategies, coastal zone planning, the recovery of sea trout stocks in aquaculture areas and the scale of aquaculture-free zones.

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