Nfld. & Labrador

Lumpfish a 'biological weapon' against sea lice, says CEO of company proposing hatchery

'Lumpsuckers' feed on sea lice, which can be harmful — and even fatal — to salmon.

'Lumpsuckers' feed on sea lice, which can be harmful — and even fatal — to salmon.

An adult lumpfish swims in a tank at the Ocean Sciences Centre in Logy Bay, N.L. where they are being studied for their use in aquaculture. (Jane Adey/CBC)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government is conducting an environmental assessment of a proposal to build a lumpfish hatchery — the first in Canada — in Marystown to service the growing aquaculture industry.

Lumpfish are valued for their roe in the commercial fishery but in aquaculture, they're valued for something else: they feed on sea lice.

Sea lice infestations are one of the biggest challenges in raising farmed salmon. The parasites feed on the mucus, blood and skin of salmon. Large numbers on a fish can be harmful or fatal.

"A lot of the international companies are using cleaner fish in their integrated pest management strategies. And here in Newfoundland it has been tried over the last number of years with great success," said Danny Boyce, facility and business manager of Memorial University's Ocean Sciences Centre, which has conducted the groundwork and research for the hatchery.

Boyce said the lumpfish — sometimes called "lumpsuckers" — swim among the salmon in pens and naturally feed on sea lice, eating it directly off the bodies of salmon.

All of these tanks at the Ocean Sciences Centre in Logy Bay contain juvenile lumpfish used in the local aquaculture industry to try to reduce sea lice in open net pen salmon farming. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"What we're doing here in some of our farms in the Atlantic region are putting in about 10 per cent cleaner fish. So say there were 600,000 salmon on a typical farm then we will put in 10 per cent lumpfish," said Boyce.

Marbase, the company that wants to build the hatchery, plans to grow up to three million lumpfish a year.

Marbase chairman and CEO Paul Antle says the construction phase of the hatchery, if approved, will create 60 jobs, while hatchery operation will create 30 year-round jobs.

Danny Boyce, the Ocean Sciences Centre facility and business manager, holds an adult lumpfish. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"If we grow our production capacity then the number of jobs will grow as well," said Antle. 

After the lumpfish are used in salmon pens for up to 24 months, they're harvested and used to make products like pet food.

"We're in the early stages of looking at more of an exit strategy of getting some value for these lumpfish at the end," said Boyce. 

"In Iceland, they actually have a commercial fishery for the smaller males and they're smoking these products and sending them overseas."

But not everyone is convinced about the efficacy of lumpfish.

Bill Bryden of the Newfoundland and Labrador Coalition for Aquaculture Reform, claims that when lumpfish are added to pens with farmed salmon, the fish exchange pathogens.

Bryden also said lumpfish are only partially successful in controlling sea lice.

This tank at Memorial University's Ocean Sciences Centre contains 60,000 juvenile lumpfish. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"All the site workers I spoke with the the past few months revealed that the lumpfish placed in these cages were eaten to death by the lice this summer/fall," wrote Bryden in an email to CBC.

Antle said Bryden is wrong.

"Lumpfish work as a biological weapon for controlling sea lice on Atlantic salmon," he wrote to CBC, noting countries like Norway use lumpfish to eat lice.

Anyone with concerns about the hatchery project can submit comments to the Department of Environment until Jan. 15. The minister's decision is due Jan. 24.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The Broadcast