No More Salmon Sushi If Parasitic Sea Lice Have Their Way

Sea lice could make it harder to get your intake of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, not to mention that weekly splurge on sushi. ABC reports that global fish farms have been suffering as the parasite continues to kill off large quantities of salmon, driving up costs and decreasing supply.

The news outlet reports that although companies are experimenting with new innovations, like warm water baths and lasers to kill the lice underwater, the critters seem to be winning at the moment.

"There are not enough tools right now to allow the farmer to really effectively deal with it," Shawn Robinson, scientist with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told ABC.

The problem is fairly new, and some in the food industry wonder whether it can be contained. In April, The Guardian spoke with one unidentified farmer who believes there’s little hope for the multibillion-dollar industry.

“Sometimes it seems nature is against us and we are fighting a losing battle,” he told the publication. “They are everywhere now, and just a few [sea lice] can kill a fish. When I started in fish farming 30 years ago, there were barely any. Now they are causing great problems.”

The latest scare in the salmon farming world recirculates an ongoing fear: How safe is farmed fish?

Many health professionals have urged consumers to buy wild seafood, in part because early reports detected higher amounts of contaminants, like PCBs (a type of industrial chemical), in farmed varieties. Current regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allow two parts per billion in a single portion of fish.

According to Tim Fitzgerald, scientist and sustainable seafood expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, farming practices have become better over the years, which should put some of your worries to rest. He told The New York Times that stores like Whole Foods and Wegmans set high standards for their vendors, ultimately putting the pressure on companies to adapt responsible methods.  

In fact, according to research from Roxanne Karimi, a marine scientist at Stony Brook University, mercury levels in farmed salmon are actually lower than in its wild counterparts. 

“It looks like there’s evidence that pollutant levels of mercury, PCBS and dioxins have decreased in farmed salmon,” Karimi told Newsweek, pointing to research studying farmed Atlantic salmon in Norway from 1999 to 2011. The report indicates that environmental pollutants, including dioxins and PCBs, were below the European Union’s maximum limit. Norway is one of the largest producers of farmed salmon.

Still, Karimi warns that assessing contaminants in farmed fish is tricky: “There’s very little data on pollutant levels and nutrient levels in farmed fish.” The insufficient research is due to a lack of monitoring in the United States. “There really needs to be a surveillance program so we can see how these things are changing as farming practices change over time,” Karimi asserts.

The researcher could not say whether parasitic sea lice could find their way onto your plate. As the Washington State Department of Health outlines, the problem is complicated, and United States and British Columbia laws require monthly monitoring for the parasite. Treatments are needed when there are more than three lice per fish.

For those who still have concerns about ordering their weekly bagel and lox, Karimi believes that unless you eat a great deal of fish, the benefits of ordering salmon outweigh the risk. She advises cautious consumers to visit the Environmental Working Group’s seafood calculator for information about mercury levels and additional educational resources.

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