Concerns Over Escaped NL Farmed Fish

Concerns over Escaped Farmed Fish in Newfoundland
Response to Cyr Couturier, CBC ‘Here and Now’, NL, Broadcast date: May 16th, 2013
May 22, 2013

Corner Brook, NL - Following the recent discovery of 25 farmed salmon in the Garnish River on the South coast, concerns over the interaction of farmed and wild salmon are mounting. The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) is responding to comments made by Cyr Couturier, President of the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association, aired on CBC’s ‘Here and Now’.  ASF would like to counter Mr. Couturier’s misinformed attempt to dispel the public’s growing apprehension over the threats of open net pen salmon aquaculture to Newfoundland’s wild Atlantic salmon.

To begin, ASF questions the science behind Mr. Couturier’s statement, that farmed salmon are “exactly genetically identical” to their wild counterparts.  Don Ivany, Regional Program Director for ASF in Newfoundland and Labrador comments, “Yes, it is true that wild and farmed salmon are similar enough to interbreed, as Mr. Couturier acknowledges; however these two fish are about as related as your family dog and a wild wolf.”  Through domestication, the process by which farmers select and breed for desirable traits (e.g. fast growth, non-aggressive behavior etc), the industry has created a salmon that is desirable for farming and for eating; not for living in the wild environment.  When these fish escape and breed with wild individuals, the resulting offspring are less ‘fit’ for their natural environment.  

For example, research by McGinnity and others (2003) has shown that farmed-wild hybrids have higher egg mortality, lower juvenile survival, and lower survival at sea, compared to wild salmon.

The consequences of interbreeding between wild and farmed salmon does not “sometimes happen in the laboratory” as Mr. Couturier suggests, but rather is a well-documented phenomenon that has been demonstrated in a multitude of peer reviewed studies around the world, in both laboratory and field settings.  

To provide a list of these publications here would be exhaustive, but interested readers can find a selection on ASF’s website (www.asf.ca).  The findings reached by these studies are remarkably similar, and contrary to what Mr. Couturier would have you believe, increasing the genetic diversity of wild salmon populations through interbreeding with farmed salmon does not result in “better performance”.  It results in offspring that are less likely to survive and reproduce.  

Interestingly, Mr. Couturier is right in asserting that in Newfoundland “there is not a lot of evidence of interbreeding”; indeed, there have been few- if any- peer reviewed studies investigating these issues in Newfoundland that would provide such evidence.  In other words, says Mr. Ivany, “if no one is looking, obviously no one will find any evidence; that doesn’t mean that the evidence isn’t there”.

The same can be said for research investigating the transmission of diseases between farmed and wild fish.  There is a need for more rigorous monitoring and research to support statements like those made by Mr. Couturier that the transfer of diseases from farmed to wild fish “doesn’t typically happen”.  In the case of the escaped farmed salmon found in the Garnish River, it is too soon to conclude that “these fish were healthy” and therefore posed no threat to wild fish, as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has yet to complete their health testing of these fish.  

Mr. Couturier is the face of the aquaculture industry in Newfoundland, and, of course, he is expected to represent and support the interests of that industry.  However, these interests are often at odds with the interests and viewpoints held by the public, conservationists, and scientists.  It is not just “some anglers with concerns” that salmon farming is detrimental to wild salmon populations.  The respected scientists of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and the Royal Society of Canada are also concerned that aquaculture is a significant threat to vulnerable wild Atlantic salmon, because of issues like interbreeding and disease.

Mr. Ivany is calling for more transparency in the industry with respect to escapes, including small-scale ‘trickle out’ escapes that add up over time.  Currently, the industry is only required to report large escapes of greater than 100 fish.  “We suspect industry and government are afraid to do the necessary research because they are afraid of what they will find.   Up to the year 2001 it was confirmed that 209,800 farmed salmon and 216,953 steelhead/rainbow trout escaped from farms on the South coast.  Yet the industry and governments are reluctant to provide the list of escapes to the public since then or even for the past few years”.

In the Coast of Bays Region, where these most recent escaped salmon were found, aquaculture production has more than tripled since 2003.  As this most recent discovery of farmed fish in the Garnish River has shown, our current regulatory, monitoring and reporting system does not have the capabilities to estimate when, where, or how many farm fish are escaping into our ocean.  In the face of such rapid growth, it is time for all of us to be concerned.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation is dedicated to the conservation, protection and restoration of wild Atlantic salmon and the ecosystems on which their well-being and survival depend.  ASF has a network of seven regional councils (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Maine and Western New England).  The regional councils cover the freshwater range of the Atlantic salmon in Canada and the United States.

ASF Contact:  
•    Don Ivany, Director, NL Programs: DIvany@asf.ca; (709) 632-5100 (o); (709) 632-1155 (c)
•    Livia Goodbrand, Manager of Public Information: Lgoodbrand@asf.ca;  506-469-1033   

Photo Below: Aquaculture site in Harbour Breton region photo: Livia Goodbrand

Aquaculture site - Harbour Breton, NL