Unprecedented situation in Iceland following salmon sea lice problems

Arctic Fish and Arnarlax were forced to an emergency premature harvest following sea lice problems at their Westfjords salmon operations in Iceland.
Arctic Fish and Arnarlax (whose farm is pictured) were forced into an emergency premature harvest following sea lice problems at their Westfjords salmon operations in Iceland.
Arctic Fish and Arnarlax (whose farm is pictured) were forced into an emergency premature harvest following sea lice problems at their Westfjords salmon operations in Iceland.Arnarlax.

"There is a difficult situation in Tálknafjörður due to lice," acknowledged the Icelandic salmon producer owned by Mowi Arctic Fish. "Arnarlax experiences a situation when it comes to lice in the Westfjords of Iceland," said its competitor, owned by also by a Norwegian company, SalMar. Although neither companies nor the country's Food and Veterinary Authority have made public the number of dead or discarded fish, the local online newspaper Heimildin speaks of at least one million dead or discarded salmon.

Companies recognize the problem and try to solve it

The SalMar-owned company was the first to speak publicly about the problem. "Arnarlax experiences a situation when it comes to lice in the Westfjords of Iceland. This leads to a high activity of delicing," it said on October 27. The company reported that, for the first time in Iceland, it was using a non-medical treatment with the so-called 'optilicer technique' with a well-boat from Norway called Ronja Strand which would treat the fish over the next 7 days.

The company added that thanks to good weather conditions, the results of the treatment - approved by the fish disease committee and performed according to it - were so far good. "In addition to delicing Arnarlax has decided to take out some fish earlier than planned in order to ensure a good biological status on the fish heading into the winter period," added the salmon producer at the end of its statement, announcing further information at the presentation of Q32023 results on November 9.

A few days later it was Arctic Fish which acknowledged the situation through its Facebook page. "As has been reported in the media, there is a difficult situation in Tálknafjörður due to lice," it stated. "The lice have multiplied rapidly, leading to damage to the fish. In response to this, the company has decided to harvest a significant portion of the fish."

"The conditions in Tálknafjörður have deteriorated quickly, and unfortunately, it takes time to harvest the affected fish. We are working as quickly as possible, and our staff is putting in a great effort. However, it will still take several days to complete the harvesting," the Mowi-owned company said yesterday. Arctic Fish remarked that fish welfare is a top priority for them and that it will carefully evaluate how to improve. Finally, it said that the fish collected will be used for feed production.

The position of the Food and Veterinary Authority

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (Matvælastofnun - MAST) has also commented on this unprecedented situation in the country which, it reports, has had salmon farming companies in the Westfjords struggling to control the increase of salmon lice in sea pens in Patreksfjordur Bay for months now. So much so that last week it even authorized chemical treatments in eight sites as an extraordinary measure given the seriousness of the situation. It did so recalling that the use of drugs in the fight against lice is a remedy that should only be used in case of absolute emergency.

"Since last spring, the Food Safety Authority has directed these companies to obtain as soon as possible from abroad so-called delousing vessels that allow for the treatment of salmon against lice without the use of drugs. These treatments include freshwater treatment, heat treatment, and pressure treatment. Such treatment methods kill the lice at all stages and have minimal environmental impact," said MAST release.

"Attempts were made in the fall by the companies to acquire delousing vessels, but it appears that the supply of such vessels needed to be greater, as there is a high demand for these ships," it continued. "Therefore, it was not possible to obtain the ships until around mid-October. According to the Food Safety Authority, it is essential that such vessels are located in the Westfjords from May to October each year, and the companies are expected to do so from the spring of 2024."

Finally, the Food and Veterinary Authority pointed out that the fish currently being harvested will be used in various animal feed, including the production of fishmeal, and remarked that "the fish does not enter the human food supply." It also said it will review the situation with the companies once operations are completed and suggest measures to help limit such incidents in the future.

Dissemination of videos with sick and dead salmon

Iceland, which recently presented the draft of its new fish farming policy, considers fish welfare as a priority, as well as having minimal environmental impact on its territory. Just last week the Icelandic Parliament approved additional funds to develop oversight of the country's burgeoning aquaculture industry, following the recent Arctic Fish salmon escape. But, if fish escapes from salmon farms in Iceland have become a source of national debate in the country, the situation with sea lice-infected salmon is not going to be far behind.

Coinciding with the statements by Arnarlax, Arctic Fish, and MAST, the local online newspaper Heimildin shared videos shot by kayaker and environmentalist Veigu Grétarsdóttir showing salmon infected with lice, sick, with head wounds, some even dead at Arctic Fish's sea pens in Tálknafjörður.

"In light of this, we are slaughtering them all. No one has ever seen anything like this before. A Norwegian veterinarian who has been working in the country has never seen anything like this in his 30-year career," Karl Steinar Óskarsson, area manager for Fish Farming at MAST, told Heimildin after being asked about the videos.

According to information provided to Heimildin by Karl Steinar Óskarsson, about one million farmed salmon have died or have been discarded due to salmon lice that appeared in Arctic Fish and Arnarlax sea pens in Tálknafjörður. He added that the companies are fighting it and that this is the first case in the history of Icelandic salmon farming where such a problem with salmon lice has arisen. "This is the first time, and people have never seen this before. People are just trying to respond as best they can."

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