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Think Critically About Salmon Aquaculture

June 03, 2013

St Andrews, NB - Between escaped salmon appearing in the Garnish River and last week’s detection of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) in Goblin Cove, Newfoundland’s salmon aquaculture industry has been in the news a lot lately.  The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Cyr Couturier, President of the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry, have assured us that on both fronts, we need not be worried for our wild Atlantic salmon stocks.  The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) would like to suggest otherwise; evidence from multiple peer-reviewed published studies on the effects of open net pen salmon farming on wild Atlantic salmon indicates that the threat is real.  It’s time to think critically about the information that DFO and the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association is providing us.

Wild salmon and farmed salmon can interbreed.  This fact is acknowledged by DFO; however, DFO assures us that they haven’t found any evidence of interbreeding in Newfoundland.  ASF’s President, Bill Taylor, believes that until someone begins looking for evidence of interbreeding in Newfoundland, it is unlikely that any evidence of interbreeding will be found:  “Until we see the establishment of a comprehensive monitoring program for escaped farmed salmon, it is misleading for DFO and the industry to claim that no evidence exists, because in fact, there is no data to provide such evidence”, says Taylor.  He also notes that there would be no evidence of escaped farmed salmon either, if concerned anglers on the Garnish River hadn’t found 25 last week.  

Most recently, DFO assured us that the escaped fish in the Garnish River are not sexually mature, and that “to date, we haven’t seen any evidence of [interbreeding] in the Garnish River”.  This should come as no surprise, says Taylor: “The fish only appeared in the river a week ago, and salmon do not mature or spawn until the fall”.  Thus there is little consolation here.  

The Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association has taken a different approach to easing the public’s concerns, by picking and choosing the facts to their advantage, says Mr. Taylor.  “The industry has been using information when it works in their favor; for example, Mr. Couturier states that farmed salmon are exactly genetically identical to their wild counterparts, implying that they are of no threat to their wild salmon.  While it is true that wild and farmed salmon are genetically similar enough to interbreed, these two fish are about as related as your family dog and a wolf”, Mr. Taylor says.

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.  Like Mr. Couturier says, “Being domesticated also means these fish are not afraid of predators and many of them will be eaten before having any chance to reach sexual maturity”.  The problem is that they do sometimes survive to reach sexual maturity, and when they mate with other farmed fish or with wild salmon, they pass these genetic traits on to their offspring.

The result is that after only a few generations of wild and farmed salmon interbreeding, the hybrids are no longer adapted to their local environment.  Research has shown that farmed-wild hybrids have higher egg mortality, lower juvenile survival, and lower survival at sea, compared to wild salmon.  Over time, these interactions have the potential to wipe out salmon populations.

In addition to finding escaped farmed salmon in the Garnish River, as of this week, we now know that ISA is suspected to be present at a farm site elsewhere on the south coast, this time, in Goblin Cove.

As with the two previous confirmed cases of ISA this year, the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association is quick to point out that the ISA came from wild fish.  Yet there is no documentation that wild salmon or other known host species have been tested in those areas to confirm the source of the outbreaks.

Mr. Taylor says that the industry has played a larger role in the outbreak of diseases than they have let on: “The truth is that salmon farms concentrate and amplify diseases like ISA and parasites like sea lice.  This isn’t unique to salmon farming; it’s something that happens wherever organisms (including people) exist in high densities.  Remember the outbreaks of mad cow disease, avian flu, and swine flu?  These diseases came from ‘the wild’ but proliferated in high-density industrial farms”, say Mr. Taylor.

An important difference between animal farming on land and fish farming at sea, says Mr. Taylor, is that there are no walls to separate the inside and outside of a sea farm: water, food, small fish, parasites, bacteria, viruses, and the chemicals used to treat them, all move freely between salmon cages and the environment.  These diseases can then be transmitted from farmed fish to wild fish and then back again.  Mr. Taylor says that these interactions can be detrimental to wild organisms and the environment.  “The aquaculture industry most assuredly has increased the presence of ISA in Newfoundland’s coastal waters, and this not only puts wild salmon at risk, but other species like cod, herring, and brown trout, that can be affected by diseases like ISA as well”.  

One solution is to move salmon farming out of our coastal waters, and into closed containment facilities.  “This does not mean out of the province”, says Mr. Taylor.  “Newfoundland is well poised to become global leaders in the production of closed containment farmed salmon, because of its expertise in fish rearing and proximity to fish processing plants”.

Though the Newfoundland government has recently claimed that closed containment salmon farming is not economically viable, Mr. Taylor says that there is reason to believe otherwise.  In other parts of the county and in the US, closed containment is being perused as an economically viable alternative to open net pen salmon farming.  The incentive is that closed containment salmon farming eliminates farmed fish and wild salmon interactions: no escapes and no transfer of disease.  By moving salmon production into an indoor controlled environment, Mr. Taylor adds that fish farmers can also benefit by minimizing the costs associated with losses due to escapes and diseases.

“Until then”, adds Mr. Taylor, “the Canadian government will continue to use our tax dollars to compensate the aquaculture industry when farmed salmon are destroyed due to ISA; Mr. Couturier forgot to mention that, too”.  

The message from Mr. Taylor is that it’s time to start thinking critically about the information that is being provided to the public.  “Ultimately, it will be the voice of the informed consumer and of the people who are concerned about the future, the futures of their children and grandchildren, and the health of our local ecosystems and economies that will decide the fate of our environment and of or wild salmon populations”, says Taylor.

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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:  Livia Goodbrand,
Manager of Public Information: Lgoodbrand@asf.ca; 506-529-1033 (o); 506-469-1033 (c)