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The footage depicts a “welfare disaster” as a result of a sea-lice outbreak at an Icelandic salmon farm.

The Guardian released images of sick, deceased, and dying salmon from an Icelandic fish farm. These pictures have been deemed by a veterinary expert as a “catastrophic” event for animal welfare that has never been seen before.

Last week, aerial footage captured over a sea cage in a remote region of the country’s Westfjords revealed a distressing sight – a large number of salmon infested with sea lice, resulting in premature slaughter.

Up to 12 pens are believed to be affected by the parasites, which contained about a million fish last month, although the exact numbers have not been confirmed. A specialised vessel, the Hordafor III, sent from Norway to euthanise the fish, is seen in the footage.

The salmon lice, scientifically known as Lepeophtheirus salmonis, is a type of crustacean that feeds on the skin of salmon. This feeding process creates open wounds which can cause the salmon to become stressed and have a weakened immune system. In severe cases, this can result in a large number of salmon dying.

According to Berglind Helga Bergsdóttir, an expert in fish illnesses at MAST (the Icelandic food and veterinary authority), Iceland has never experienced such a severe outbreak of lice.

Bergsdóttir stated that the wounds did not worsen beyond this point. She explained that bacteria had caused them to become deeper and larger. The speed at which this occurred has surprised everyone.

The situation arises during a challenging period for the Icelandic open-pen salmon farming sector.

In August, the release of 3,500 salmon from a fish farm belonging to Arctic Fish, one of two companies with enclosures in Tálknafjörður, where there is currently an infestation of sea lice, sparked anger among environmentalists and resulted in a probe by Icelandic authorities.

Arctic Fish is a prominent salmon farming company in the country, under the ownership of Mowi, the leading global producer of salmon. The company’s recent escape of salmon has caused backlash, including a protest from Icelandic singer Björk. She is collaborating with Catalan star Rosalía to release a song in support of activists protesting against salmon farms, which she believes are causing significant harm to Icelandic wildlife.

Mast stressed that the two companies owning sea pens at Tálknafjörður – Artic Fish and Arnarlax – had taken the decision to humanely slaughter the affected salmon, which are not permitted to be used for human consumption.

Arnarlax stated that not all of the pens may have been impacted. After being killed, the fish would be prepared for use as animal feed.

Bergsdóttir stated that Mast is currently looking into the reason for the incident, which worsened after receiving authorization to use insecticide to control the outbreak.

Unfortunately, the insecticide was not effective in eliminating all of the lice, causing the infestation to worsen, according to Bergsdóttir. “Within two to three weeks, there was a significant rise in lice numbers.”

A cage of salmon seen from above, with pink blotches on their heads

The agency plans to look into the possibility of lice mutation, as they are known to be highly adaptable and may use this method, particularly with regard to drugs.

According to Trygve Poppe, a renowned salmon specialist and ex-professor of fish health at the Norwegian school of veterinary science, this is the most severe case he has encountered, with a high number of fish suffering from extensive lesions. He describes it as a catastrophic situation for animal well-being.

The speaker stated that the number of salmon lice infestations in the industry, specifically in Norway, Scotland, and Iceland, was on the rise. This year, eight open-pen farms were authorized to use insecticides such as emamectin, azamethiphos, and deltamethrin.

According to Poppe, lice can result in discomfort and bleeding for fish. He explained that the absence of a protective layer between the fish and the water can be seen from their reddened heads. This can lead to the fish leaking and struggling to maintain balance, often resulting in a terminal stage of their life.

Last week, Veiga Grétarsdóttir, a kayaker and activist, captured drone footage of the disposal of the salmon at Tálknafjörður. She expressed shock over the poor condition of the fish.

According to Grétarsdóttir, who works with the Icelandic Wildlife Fund, she did not observe any healthy fish. She described them as moving slowly, similar to zombie fish – appearing dead but still moving.

The representative for Arctic Fish announced that they will be removing fish from Tálknafjörður due to a rise in sea lice activity. This decision was made due to the unfortunate increase in sea lice pressure in the area.

“The situation quickly became more serious and the company is making every effort to remove the fish as quickly as possible.”

According to him, the bureaucratic process of approving and implementing effective measures against lice has resulted in a rise in lice infestations.

Arctic Fish recognizes the importance of ensuring the well-being of our fish. However, we also recognize the need for a revised framework that does not jeopardize their welfare due to bureaucratic processes.

A representative from Arnarlax stated that they have faced increased lice pressure and have chosen to remove some salmon in order to maintain the overall health of the remaining fish population.

He stated that the company had not lost 12 pens, but did not provide further information on the number that were destroyed. The company now utilizes a non-chemical method for delousing and after culling, the fish will be converted into animal feed.

Source: theguardian.com