Eagle count near record low 

Fish-farming and bad weather blamed

There were eagles, sure, but fewer than last year. And still fewer than the year before that.

The 23 rd annual eagle count, the flagship event of the Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival, tallied 755 birds within the 40 km project zone, down from 893 last year and a far cry from the benchmark year of 1994, when a count of 3,769 birds put Brackendale on the world’s ornithological map.

“Fish farming is ruining our wild stock for money,” said Thor Froslev, head of the festival, which is based out of the Brackendale Art Gallery. “When I catch salmon here, there’s one or two sea lice on them. It just means they’re fresh from salt water. But the chum salmon, when they’re six months old, they go up and start their migration north, and that’s where they have the fish farms and that’s where the pink salmon start coming down. So they attach themselves to the young salmon and they kill them. That’s it.”

According to Froslev, the salmon run was some 25 per cent of its typical bulk. And for the eagles, the salmon are the draw.

“It’s just devastating,” he said. “What the hell do you do?”

The Squamish Stream Keepers have a campaign on the go. They want people to fill out salmon-shaped postcards decrying fish-farming and send them swimming to Premier Gordon Campbell’s office. It’s not just for the eagles, they say, but the bears, the fish themselves and everything else connected to the water.

“The salmon farms are situated in the wild salmon migration routes,” said Ana Santos, a Squamish resident and wildlife volunteer with organizations in Alaska. “So when the wild fry travel these migrations, they get infected by the sea lice from the farms. You’ve got to think that one to three lice is enough to kill one of these little fry. We have been counting up to 13 lice on one side of a fry.”

Santos, who volunteers with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, as well as the Squamish Environmental Conservation Society (SECS), will be giving a lecture on Jan. 10 at the Brackendale Art Gallery. Called “ Salmon Farming: The Bare Bones ,” it explores the impacts of the industry on the environment.

“Is there anything else to do?” she wonders. “I say yes. There are other ways to do salmon farming. In Europe, they’re already implementing these things. There’s close-containment on land, for example. There are other ways to do this. The problem for the farmers is changing their way of doing this means it’s more expensive. But anything they do will be more expensive then what they have right now.”

According to Santos, the current practice is to farm in waterways. It cuts down on food costs, as well as clean-up. On the other hand, it introduces lice to environmental arteries.

Some farmers have been trying an experimental drug called Slice, a chemical that kills off the tiny destroyers. Unfortunately, the drug is expensive. Santos said it was used in February by local fish farmers with some effect. But, because of the cost deterrent, the lice numbers were back up come summer.

“This drug can have devastating impacts on the environment,” she said. “ It hasn’t been approved yet, but the farmers have been experimenting with it. The drug is effective in getting rid of the lice, at least for a while. But the consequences for the rest of the environment, like the things that live at the bottom of the ocean, the prawns and the crab, they can suffer from this.”

While fish-farming is to blame for at least some of the low eagle numbers, weather certainly didn’t help, said Froslev. He points to some counters who travel by water on kayaks or canoes.

“It was snowing five feet of snow and all of that,” he said. “So it’s hard to get out there. We had to drag the raft through close to a kilometre of snow to get to a place where you can put it in.”

In the 23 years of the festival, the count has only been lower twice. In 1990, it was 737. In 1986, it was 537.

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