A West Coast salmon farm has been charged in the drowning deaths of sea lions and seals that became entangled in nets surrounding fish pens.
Grieg Seafood BC Ltd., which operates 21 farms on the British Columbia coast, is charged with violating the Fisheries Act at three different locations.
"The charges appear to refer to the accidental drowning of 52 California sea lions and one harbour seal over a six-month period in early 2010, all of which were immediately reported to the DFO by Grieg Seafood B.C.," the company said in a statement on Wednesday.
A court document filed by Gregory Barton Rusel, a fishery officer based in Gold River on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, states the company "did unlawfully destroy marine animals ... by drowning."
Seven counts deal with the deaths of an unspecified number of sea lions, and two counts are related to the deaths of an unspecified number of seals.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans did not immediately have a spokesperson available to discuss the case, but an official in the communications branch said it appears to be the first time such charges have been laid in B.C.
Environmentalists welcomed the charges, saying the case highlights the environmental cost of fish farming, but aquaculture industry officials said it sends the wrong message to fish farmers, who are striving to come up with non-harmful ways of keeping sea lions out of their pens.
Stewart Hawthorn, managing director of Grieg Seafood BC Ltd., said he is surprised by the charges, which come two years after several incidents in which a large number of marine mammals drowned in nets surrounding his company's fish pens.
"There was a change in sea lion behaviour [that year] They were attacking the nets, and became entangled and drowned," Mr. Hawthorn said.
"We were very saddened by these accidental drownings," he said. "[Staff]were very upset ... one of the discussions was should we, as we are allowed to do, get a shooter in to euthanize these animals? There was a very large number of sea lions in the area at the time. And the decision was made, no, that would be the wrong thing to do and we want to find a passive way of protecting the fish that doesn't harm sea lions."
He said that later that year, staff worked out a way of using predator nets to keep the sea lions out of the fish pens, and since then Grieg Seafood has not had another marine mammal drowning incident.
"It's working," he said of the new predator controls.
"And that's what's surprising about these charges. Something that happened two years ago, you kind of think that is in the past, especially with having no repeats. That's what's disappointing about it," Mr. Hawthorn said.
Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said that, coast-wide, the industry is switching to new predator nets and operators feel they are getting the situation under control.
"Marine mammal interaction can be hard to address and the companies are working hard to do that," she said. "Companies are moving rapidly to ensure they've got the proper nets on those systems."
However, Catherine Stewart, salmon farming campaign manager for Living Oceans Society, welcomed the charges.
"It's very good news the government is actually taking this seriously and is starting to crack down on the industry. We hope this is just the start of initiatives to try and contain the marine mammal deaths," Ms. Stewart said.