Thieving sea lions break into salmon farm and gorge on feast of fish

Conservationists say the farms are a danger to sea lions and other marine mammals, who can become entangled in their nets.

A sea lion enjoys an easy meal at the industrial fish farm. Photograph: Jeremy Mathieu/Clayoquot Action

First published on 2022 Apr 07

Dozens of thieving sea lions in western Canada have spent the last few weeks gorging on fish after brazenly slipping into an industrial salmon farm – and ignoring all attempts to make them move on.

Cermaq, the aquaculture giant with operations in Norway, Chile and Canada, says the wily predators were able to evade netting and electric fences in late March as part of a “breach event” at the Rant Point farm near Tofino in British Columbia.

Local conservation groups, who oppose the fish farms and only learned of the breach on Sunday, have warned the sea lions themselves are in danger the longer they spend inside the farm.

“We witnessed the sea lion going over one of the fences jumping right into a ‘bird net’, which is suspended net above the pens. He struggled for quite some time to free himself,” said Bonny Glambeck of Clayoquot Action, a local environmental group. “There’s a lot of ropes and hoses around, so we’re increasingly concerned about entanglement.”

In little more than a decade, more than 100 sea lions have drowned after getting tangled in fish farm nets, as has one humpback whale, highlighting the dangers the farms and their nets pose to local wildlife.

Efforts to scare the sea lions away, including with loud noises, have so far failed. The company said exits are available to the intruders “should they choose to leave”– an offer the sea lions appear to have declined.

In 2016, after sea lions breached another Cermaq fish farm, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans authorized the company to shoot the animals. The DFO now says there is a “strict requirement” that none of the sea lions be killed.

Sea lions, a common mammal in the waters off Vancouver Island, typically hunt in groups and feast on herring, salmon, rock fish and even small sharks. But the pinnipeds hit paydirt when they made their way into pens full of salmon.

The farm can hold as many as 500,000 Atlantic salmon, although the company had already started the weeks-long process of harvesting in March when the first sea lions arrived.

More sea lions have since joined in the heist, much to the frustration of the company, which says it hopes to finish harvesting by the third week of April.

Allen Cooke,Nathan Cultee emerge from the hold of the Marathon after having separated out the 16 farm-raised Atlantic salmon they caught fishing off Point Williams, Washington.
Thousands of Atlantic salmon escape from fish farm into Pacific

The breach at the farm has also drawn attention to the British Columbia fish farms, a number of which have been ordered to close by the federal government by 2025 amid environmental concerns and opposition from Indigenous nations. Companies in the region, including Cermaq, have fought the order and say thousands of jobs will be lost.

Glambeck worries the sea lions will become habituated to humans and once the salmon are gone, turn to the 14 other farms in the area.

“They’re very intelligent animals and it’s so disheartening and heartbreaking to see these animals being potentially harmed by this industry,” she said.

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