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Conserv Biol. 2009 Jun;23(3):599-607. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.01128.x. Epub 2008 Dec 10.

Sea-cage aquaculture, sea lice, and declines of wild fish.

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Department of Geology and Geophysics, School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.


A sea cage, sometimes referred to as a net pen, is an enclosure designed to prevent farm fish from escaping and to protect them from large predators, while allowing a free flow of water through the cage to carry away waste. Farm fish thus share water with wild fish, which enables transmission of parasites, such as sea lice, from wild to farm and farm to wild fishes. Sea lice epidemics, together with recently documented population-level declines of wild salmon in areas of sea-cage farming, are a reminder that sea-cage aquaculture is fundamentally different from terrestrial animal culture. The difference is that sea cages protect farm fish from the usual pathogen-control mechanisms of nature, such as predators, but not from the pathogens themselves. A sea cage thus becomes an unintended pathogen factory. Basic physical theory explains why sea-cage aquaculture causes sea lice on sympatric wild fish to increase and why increased lice burdens cause wild fish to decline, with extirpation as a real possibility. Theory is important to this issue because slow declines of wild fish can be difficult to detect amid large fluctuations from other causes. The important theoretical concepts are equilibrium, host-density effect, reservoir-host effect, and critical stocking level of farmed fish (stocking level at which lice proliferate on farm fish even if wild fish are not present to infect them). I explored these concepts and their implications without mathematics through examples from salmon farming. I also considered whether the lice-control techniques used by sea-cage farmers (medication and shortened grow-out times) are capable of protecting wild fish. Elementary probability showed that W ≈ W* - εF (where W is the abundance of wild fish, W* is the prefarm abundance, F is the abundance of farm fish, and ε is the ratio of lice per farm fish to lice per wild fish). Declines of wild fish can be reduced by short growing cycles for farm fish, medicating farm fish, and keeping farm stocking levels low. Declines can be avoided only by ensuring that wild fish do not share water with farmed fish, either by locating sea cages very far from wild fish or through the use of closed-containment aquaculture systems. These principles are likely to govern any aquaculture system where cage-protected farm hosts and sympatric wild hosts have a common parasite with a direct life cycle.

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