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Sea lions feast on salmon after breaking into fish farm

Getting the sea lions to leave has been difficult; rules prohibit some methods

About two dozen voracious sea lions have broken into net pens at Cermaq Canada’s fish farm northeast of Tofino, where they are gobbling up farmed Atlantic salmon at harvesting time.

And the huge animals are refusing to leave what has become an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“They are eating a lot of farmed salmon,” said Bonny Glambeck, campaigns director at Clayoquot Action, a Tofino-based conservation society that is making daily trips to the farm to monitor the situation.

“They are having quite a feast in there.”

Glambeck said the sea lions in some cases are just biting off the heads of the fish and leaving the bodies.

A whale-watching company told Clayoquot Action on Saturday night about the sea lions at Rant Point, Glambeck said. “So we went out on Sunday to check it out and we discovered that two of the pens had about two dozen sea lions.”

Sea lions have since made their way into four pens, Glambeck said, noting the feasting party includes both Steller and California sea lions of a mix of ages.

Sea lions are imposing animals. Male California sea lions can reach 2.4 metres (eight feet) in length and weigh up to 363 kilograms (800 pounds). Larger Steller sea lions can reach 3.3 metres (11 feet) long and tip the scales at 1,140 kilograms (2,500 pounds). Both are native to B.C.’s coast.

They are also a noisy bunch, known for their loud barks.

A Cermaq spokesperson could not be reached, but according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the party is about to end for the sea lions.

Cermaq is harvesting its salmon and expects to be finished in the third week of this month, said spokeswoman Lauren Girdler, who said Cermaq has been informing DFO about challenges with the sea lions at that farm in the past month.

Fisheries department biologists spotted 10 to 20 sea lions in the pens at Rant Point on March 23.

Glambeck is worried for the well-being of the sea lions, which have been hanging around the fish farms for many years, lured by the fish raised in the net pens. One concern is the possibility that the animals could become entangled in nets and drown, she said.

In the past, fish farms were permitted to kill nuisance sea lions, but that’s no longer allowed.

Girdler said attempts to deter the sea lions and remove them from the net pens, with least harm to the animals, have been ongoing in consultation with DFO biologists, but so far they haven’t worked.

Cermaq’s licence conditions do not permit acoustic deterrents below water, although DFO does permit the use of deterrent noise, such as an air cannon, above water, she said.

Loud devices have been set off to scare away the sea lions with no success, however.

It’s not known exactly how the sea lions got into the pens, which have netting to contain the salmon, plus a heavier predator netting, as well as electric fencing around the open-net pens.

Some say they may have jumped. Glambeck says the sea lions may have entered a pen when fencing was lowered for harvesting, then broken through nets in the water in a bid to get out.

Cermaq has been actively working to repair any holes in the nets to prevent fish escape, Gilder said, adding DFO has no indication that there has been any escape of Atlantic salmon.

Clayoquot Action is opposed to fish farms in B.C.’s marine waters, which it sees as a type of “factory food production,” Glambeck said. The environmental organization believes farms do not belong in the UNESCO Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve, where ecotourism, including viewing sea lions, is a key component of the area’s economy.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

Video by Alanna Kelly