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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Salmon farms should be shut down temporarily to prevent a complete collapse of wild pink salmon runs on northeastern Vancouver Island, says a report released Monday.
The Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council said the wild salmon are in crisis in the Broughton Archipelago, having decreased from 3.6 million spawners in 2000 to 147,000 this year.
"The time for action is now," said the report, which was sent to the provincial and federal fisheries ministers.
"Some may argue that more study be done prior to implementing any measures to protect juvenile pink salmon passage, (but) ... such a strategy may lead to irreparable harm to the Broughton Archipelago pink salmon stocks," the report by the federally funded fisheries council said.
There is evidence that juvenile pink salmon in the area north of Alert Bay on northeastern Vancouver Island were infested with sea lice, it says.
Sea lice occur naturally, but environmentalists worry their numbers are spiking at fish farms, where there are many thousands of penned-in hosts.
Area salmon farms should be closed by the end of February to allow enough time for sea lice to die off before smolts enter the area in April on their way to the ocean, the report says.
If the 20 fish farms in the archipelago aren't closed, at the very least a cooperative sea lice control plan has to be put in place, it recommends.
The archipelago is home to the densest concentration of salmon farms on the British Columbia coast.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said it wants to cooperate with any solution that will ensure a healthy marine environment.
"Like others, we believe that there are multiple factors involved in the low return of pinks, and if our industry is one of those factors, then we want to know about it," Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the association, said in a statement.
"Any sort of human activity poses some risk to nature. The key is to weigh those risks, reduce them as much as possible and manage them over time."
Odd Grydeland, of Heritage Salmon fish farm, said news of a sea lice infestation was a surprise.
"Historically we have not had a problem with sea lice on our fish in that area," Grydeland said.
Provincial fisheries minister John van Dongen said his staff would take a close look at the report. But he did not say whether the province would follow the recommendation to close the farms and wouldn't say when the province's review would be completed.
The British Columbia government lifted a moratorium on fish-farm expansion earlier this year over the objections of environmentalists concerned about disease, pollution and the possibility that escaped farmed Atlantic salmon could displace wild stocks in spawning streams.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials haven't had time to evaluate the report or its recommendations, said Greg Savard, the department's area director.
"There's a need for some rigorous environmental monitoring and further research and we certainly agree with that," Savard said.