The nets of a salmon farm ensnared and drowned 51 California sea lions earlier this month, more than in all of 2006, a spokesman for the...

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TOFINO, B.C. — The nets of a salmon farm ensnared and drowned 51 California sea lions earlier this month, more than in all of 2006, a spokesman for the Vancouver Island fish-farm operator says.

Employees of Creative Salmon Co. Ltd. discovered the mass of dead animals April 12 while changing nets on the farm, located in Tofino Inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

“In 16 years of operation, we have never experienced anything like this,” general manager Spencer Evans said. “It was very unfortunate.”

The incident and other reported sea lion drownings have environmentalists calling for the farms to use closed-containment systems rather than open-ocean net cages to raise fish.

So far this year, Creative Salmon has reported 110 drowned sea lions, up from 46 in 2006.

Evans said divers initially discovered a few drowned sea lions between the grower net and shark guard while performing a routine inspection.

The grower net houses the salmon. The shark guard, attached to the bottom of the grower net, is a false bottom designed to keep out dog fish, a small shark.

Grower nets and shark guards are surrounded by a larger net, called a predator net, which surrounds an entire fish farm.

Evans said workers aboard a boat initially tried to remove the dead sea lions by lifting the grower net and shark guard from the water with a crane.

“The net was too heavy for the crane to handle,” he said.

Divers then entered the water and reported a mass of dead sea lions.

Evans said he thinks the sea lions chewed through the predator net and shark guard to get at the salmon in the grower net but drowned when they couldn’t get back out.

He tied the deaths to an increase in the number of sea lions, which have been drawn to the area by the presence of mackerel and other fish.

In February, Rod Palm, a Tofino naturalist, counted 1,083 Californian and stellar sea lions in an area of Tofino Inlet just over 1 kilometer long.

In the same month, Creative Salmon counted 601 sea lions at Berryman Point, up from six on Dec. 6.

Evans said he believes the sea lions are now targeting the farms because other fish populations are declining.

“Once they find a good spot they typically remember that,” said Marilyn Joyce, a marine mammal coordinator for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Pacific region. “If the food’s done, they’ll move on.”

Andrew Thomson, Fisheries’ acting director for aquaculture management, called the mass drowning “quite alarming.”

“We’re certainly taking this quite seriously,” he said.

Thomson said at least two other Vancouver Island salmon farms — one on the west coast and one in the Broughton Archipelago — have reported sea lion entanglements and drownings. But in each case only one or two animals were involved.

Provincial and federal agencies were investigating the drownings, Thompson said.

Evans said he thinks a change in the nets’ design will prevent more deaths.

“I’m confident with modification to design we can make it work at Dawley Pass,” he said. “We can solve this problem.”

Environmentalists, however, disagree.

Catherine Stewart, campaign director for the Living Oceans Society, said her organization is looking into reported drownings outside Tofino and expects to release information early next week.

“We have to surmise the scope of the problem coast-wide could be very significant,” said Stewart before learning how many had drowned at the Creative Salmon facility.

“You’re not going to eliminate the predator deaths with open net cages. Inevitably, there will be entanglements and drownings.”

The only way to avoid such deaths, she said, is to move towards closed-containment systems.

Dom Repta, a Friends of Clayoquot Sound aquaculture campaigner, said other Clayoquot Sound and British Columbia. salmon farming companies must follow Creative Salmon’s lead and release mortality rates.