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Sea lice are killing off salmon on the other side of the Atlantic

February 10th, 2017 | Annie Zak, Alaska Dispatch News Print this article   Email this article  

A parasite is killing off farmed salmon on the other side of the world, but seafood industry experts in Alaska don't seem too worried about it.

Sea lice, which dine on salmon skin and blood, have killed off a huge number of the farmed fish in Norway and Scotland, The Washington Post reported last month.

Sea lice are mostly a worry for farmed fish, since they're often densely packed in pens, allowing the parasite to spread. Fish farms, however, are illegal in Alaska, making salmon here much less susceptible to die-offs.

Andy Wink, a seafood economist with Anchorage research firm the McDowell Group, said it's too early to tell exactly how changes in demand driven by all those dead salmon across the Atlantic could affect Alaska.

"Higher farmed salmon prices are generally good for us because that's our competition and that raises the overall bar," Wink said. "The other side of the coin is it makes Alaska products more expensive. That's been a drag on Alaska salmon. It all pretty much gets sold, it's just a question of at what price."

In addition to woes from sea lice, millions of salmon have been killed in Chilean farms as the result of a toxic algae bloom there, Reuters reported last year.

Prices of farmed salmon have increased as the supply has dwindled, but Wink said the state only releases salmon price data three times per year, so it's hard to tell how Alaska prices might be changing right now. The next round of that data is due out mid-February.

But the Nasdaq Salmon Index provides some insight. Salmon prices have increased about 9 percent in the past 12 weeks, according to the index, which reflects weekly market spot prices. It's calculated based on transactions reported by Norwegian salmon exporters and salmon producers.

Last year, wholesale salmon prices shot up 50 percent thanks to sea lice issues and the Chilean die-off, The Guardian reported.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is more concerned about how negative news stories about salmon — even those not related to Alaska salmon — might change consumers' minds about buying the fish, especially if they don't distinguish between farmed and wild.

"Scary issues around seafood promote confusion and consumer aversion. That does not increase the value of our seafood product," said Michael Kohan, seafood technical program director at ASMI. "It's one of the things that could affect the market because it's viewed as salmon as a whole, to the consumer."

Kohan said Alaska doesn't "have any issues with sea lice" because it's most problematic for farmed populations and salmon near those farms.

Jayde Ferguson, a fish pathologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, echoed that. While sea lice do exist on wild salmon in Alaska, he said they aren't a concern. That's partly because sea lice here are a different strain than European fish deal with, and because wild salmon don't face the issues caused by the density of fish farms. Pacific salmon are also more resilient to the parasite than Atlantic salmon, he said.

"We're fortunate to have a really nice resource," Ferguson said, "and, yeah, there might be a few parasites, and it's normal because it's a part of nature and luckily it's not affecting our populations."

This story first appeared in Alaska Dispatch News and is reprinted here with permission.


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