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Trespassing sea lions turn B.C. fish farm into ‘all-you-can-eat buffet’

Dozens of hungry sea lions have taken over a fish farm off the coast of Vancouver Island, feasting on untold numbers of farmed Atlantic salmon as staff struggle to kick them out.

Conservationists worry about risk of escaped farmed salmon or sea lions drowning

Dozens of hungry sea lions have taken over a fish farm off the west coast of Vancouver Island, feasting on untold numbers of farmed Atlantic salmon as staff struggle to move the intruders out.

The sea lions started targeting Cermaq's Rant Point farm near Tofino, B.C., when the company started harvesting its fish, according to a statement. The problem "intensified" over the last week and by Saturday, at least two dozen animals were helping themselves to fish from multiple pens.

Cermaq described the problem as "a breach event." Conservationists were more blunt.

"They are having an all-you-can-eat buffet right now," said Bonny Glambeck, who works with the Clayquot Action society.

Video taken at the farm on Saturday shows clusters of barking sea lions inside the farm, which can house up to 500,000 farmed salmon at a time.

The animals gulped down fish after fish, awkwardly clambering across barriers to move from one pen to another.

Glambeck said she and others at the society were concerned the sea lions got into the farm through a hole in the barrier, which would mean farmed fish could have escaped into the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. There was also worry that the sea lions were stuck inside the pens.

Cermaq said Monday that wasn't the case.

"They have entered the pens from jumping over the stanchions," a statement read.

"It is important to note that no sea lions are trapped or inhibited from exiting the farm at this time, should they choose to leave."

Cermaq said it hasn't recorded any escaped fish.

The statement said staff are trying to move the sea lions away from the farm with "approved management efforts," but added it's been "challenging" as the sea lions are adapting to the humans' behaviour.

Dozens of sea lions drown at farms in the past

Sea lions have previously died after getting into fish farms in B.C.

Fifty-one California sea lions drowned after becoming caught between nets at the Creative Salmon fish farm in Tofino Inlet in 2007. Three years later, 65 sea lions and four seals died at Grieg Seafood B.C.'s Gold River farm.

Cermaq said Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has been notified of the situation and sent personnel to the site, though Glambeck — who visits fish farms regularly as part of her work — said she had yet to see any of them herself.

"I really don't think it's good to have this level of lack of oversight on what's happening," she said. "This situation that is happening right now with the … sea lions is just another reminder of one of the many impacts that these fish farms are having on the marine environment and on our wild salmon."

CBC News has contacted DFO for comment.

With files from Chad Pawson

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