Salmon industry caught in lice crisis

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Environmental groups now fear an “ecological catastrophe” after state officials have found unacceptably high levels of parasites called

lakselus (salmon lice) on farmed fish. The industry is facing an economic crisis, if ordered to slaughter their fish, and wild salmon advocates fear the parasites will kill off Norway’s remaining wild stocks.The wild salmon and trout must swim next spring through areas where rivers meet fjords to reach the open sea, and that’s where the waters are full of parasites from fish farms.

The fish farmers, state officials and environmentalists are racing against the clock to rid the waters of the lakselus , or lice, which fasten themselves to fish and live off their slime, skin and blood.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Tuesday that every fourth fish farm in Norway has so much lice that they’re violating limits set by the Food Safety Authority (Mattilsynet) . They face fines and forced slaughtering of their fish, but penalties aren’t always enforced.The lice problem that’s been growing all year, despite hundreds of millions spent to fight it, is reaching crisis proportions, prompting Norway’s embattled Fisheries Minister Lisbeth Berg-Hansen to back down on plans to allow more fish farm expansion.

Berg-Hansen, under pressure because her family is in the fish-farming business as well, decided last week to postpone evaluation of a proposal to allow the salmon industry to boost capacity by 5 percent next year. She based her decision on the “critically high levels” of lice that have invaded Norwegian fjords.

Fish farm operators in the seafood industry are investing heavily in the fight against what they call “sea lice.” Among them is Marine Harvest, a major force in the salmon industry with operations around the world. Marine Harvest, in which shipowner John Fredriksen is the major owner, wants to see more state regulation of the industry since the lice is becoming resistant to chemical eradication and because it’s become more difficult for individual operators to reach a consensus on what they should do.

Fredriksen, with a huge investment at stake, is also an avid salmon fisherman and keen to protect wild stocks. His managers are advocating establishment of production zones and new measures to keep parasites from spreading. The plan can be costly and prevent expansion in the short term, but help eradicate the lice problem in the long term, Marine Harvest officials wrote recently in a commentary in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv .

Meanwhile, some environmentalists are calling for the resignation of Berg-Hansen and campaigns against farmed salmon. Millions are at stake, along with the economic livelihood of coastal communities nationwide.