‘Shockingly huge’ steelhead salmon escape fish farm, threatening B.C. lake

Local News Initiative reporter Rochelle Baker

Most British Columbia fishing guides will be thrilled if a client pulls a 30-pound rainbow trout out of a lake during an expedition.

But Pat Demeester, who has fished and guided in the Sunshine Coast’s Powell River region for decades, said the situation raised concerns in Lake Louise.

He said large numbers of farmed rainbow trout – marketed as sustainably farmed Lois Lake steelhead – had escaped from AgriMarine aquaculture farms into Lois Lake and Lake Khartoum, which borders the southeast of the Powell River.

For more than a decade, farmed fish — including past salmon species — have been escaping the facility, Demeester said.

But he stressed that the scale of the problem had gotten out of hand in recent years.

Large numbers of exotic trout are threatening the lake’s food web and are likely feeding on and competing with native fish.

“Vast numbers of these fish that are only used in aquaculture are escaping into very sensitive cutthroat and kokanee trout habitat,” he said.

“A client recently caught a 30-pound, one-ounce rainbow trout, and we regularly catch fish over 20 pounds.”

Rainbow trout exist in the wild in two different forms. Steelhead trout, similar to salmon, migrate to the ocean for two years or more before returning to freshwater to spawn. The “rainbow” variety is usually smaller and lives entirely in freshwater.

Wild rainbow trout usually do not exceed 40 cm and rarely exceed 10 lbs. Steelheads have more food sources in the ocean and tend to grow larger, with an average weight between 5 and 15 pounds and a trophy size approaching 20 pounds.

Demeester said farmed rainbow fish are a hybrid fish that grow quickly and have a strong appetite.

They’re also supposed to be sterile, but Demeester occasionally catches sexually active fish, posing a risk of breeding farmed fish with native cutthroats.

Demeester said there are “hordes” of farmed rainbowfish in the water, and a group of anglers can catch a lot of fish in a short amount of time.

The fish may eat insects and other smaller fish in the lake, such as juniper or native herring-sized kokanee trout. That would reduce food for the prized coastal cutthroat trout if they weren’t eaten by farmed fish, he said.

It’s unclear how many farmed fish have escaped over time, or what the consequences are for the lake’s ecosystem or even the farmers, Demeester said, adding that he has repeatedly alerted the British Columbia Department of Forests’ Fish and Game Division and The Aquaculture Enforcement Division of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) addresses this issue.

This year, Fish and Game proposed and enacted new regulations to allow anglers to catch and retain more invasive fish from the Lois and Khartoum lakes in order to protect the unique population of cutthroat trout listed as a provincial Species of Special Concern.

The DFO reportedly inspected the Lois Lake fish farm, but Demeester said he was unable to obtain any specific information on the results or penalties from any of the provincial or federal departments involved in regulating the fish farm.

While giant rainbows are good for fishing and most are likely to be sterile, there is still a real problem with mass farmed fish that are twice the size of native species and “suck up” all available food, he said.

“These things are eating machines, and we don’t even know how big they’re going to get,” Demeester said.

“The question is, ‘What is the damage to the ecosystem?'”

“How did this happen?”

The AgriMarine fish farm on Lake Louise also appears to be operating illegally, said Stan Proboszcz, a senior scientist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

In July 2021, emails between staff at the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and the DFO indicated that AgriMarine was not operating its semi-enclosed farm enclosures on its tenure site, which is a specific location authorized by the Ministry of Forests, and the community has passed Freely available documents – information request for display. At the time, AgriMarine was owned by the Dundee Corporation.

According to the documents, AgriMarine has 90 days to resolve the issue, Proboszcz said, but it is unclear how the DFO’s access enforcement has turned out.

In addition to seemingly being in the wrong place in the middle of the lake, these semi-enclosed pens are now close to the shore, with large plastic pipes running from the land across the water to the farm site, he said. He said the black pipes on the lake were not marked or illuminated and posed a boating hazard.

Proboszcz said it was difficult to figure out what the authorities were doing about the concerns of the fish farms.

The BC Ministry of Forestry did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The DFO did not respond to interview requests from the Canadian National Observer or some questions about Lois Lake AgriMarine operations. Instead, the department sent an emailed statement acknowledging that it was aware of compliance issues at the fish farm it is currently investigating.

“As this is an ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time,” the email said.

The DFO provided no information on when the investigation began, how long it was expected to take or why there was little public information about the fish farm.

Different responsibilities for regulating aquaculture are scattered across various federal and provincial departments, and there appears to be a lack of coordination or public transparency, Proboszcz said.

“I called a lot of people about different things … they just put me in touch with other people,” he said.

“So, I feel like I’m running away.”

He said it was unclear who owned the Lake Louise fish farm or how the company was held accountable for its operations.

The Canadian National Observer made multiple attempts to contact AgriMarine for comment on the Lois Lake fish farm via several different phone numbers, company website and email – none of which worked.

Proboszcz said the DFO is the agency primarily responsible for licensing, regulating and enforcing fish farms.

Yet despite repeated fish escapes and tenure violations, the farm is still operating, he said, noting that he visited the site as recently as April 5 and that the pens are still stocked.

“How did the DFO and aquaculture management and enforcement allow this to happen?” he asked.

You don’t even have to catch escaped fish to see them in the lake, he added.

“One time we were just sitting by the lake and we could see them rolling on the water,” Proboszcz said.

“They’re amazingly big. It just doesn’t look natural,” he added.

“I’m just concerned about the massive impact they’re having on the lake’s ecosystem.”

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