A salmon conservation group is calling again for closed containment systems for salmon aquaculture following the recent discovery of escaped farmed salmon in two area rivers. Although the number of fish found in the Magaguadavic River near St. George and the Dennys River near Cobscook Bay has only totalled 14, the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) says their presence indicates an unreported sea cage breach at a nearby salmon farm.
Jonathan Carr, ASF's director of research and environment, comments, "Recently, farmed salmon in the same size range are showing up in these rivers, which suggests that the fish are all part of the same escape event. None of the sizes match up with the last three breaches of containment that were reported by the industry late last fall."
There have been 11 farmed salmon caught at the fish ladder on the Magaguadavic River, weighing on average 12 pounds, and three escaped fish each weighing around 13 pounds caught in the weir on the Dennys River. "Fish of that size category are currently being grown in Passamaquoddy Bay, indicating that this is where the breach has occurred," says Carr.
Pamela Parker, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association, says, "Our companies are checking their records. There's no indication they had an escape of more than 100 fish, which requires reporting" in New Brunswick. Provincial regulations require that fish farmers notify the government of a breach of containment of 100 salmon or more within 24 hours and to have a containment management plan in place within 48 hours.
The last reported farmed salmon losses occurred in December 2010, when 138,000 juvenile salmon were lost from a fish farm off Grand Manan, and in November 2010, when 33,000 escaped from another Grand Manan fish farm. In October 2010 some 13,000 salmon escaped from a fish farm in Western Passage off Deer Island. Parker notes that those three incidents have been the only ones in which fish have been lost in the past six years in New Brunswick. Only one of the escapes was caused by equipment failure, when nets were torn by high winds. In the other cases the breaches occurred when nets were damaged by seals and by a submerged weir stake. "None of the salmon found in the rivers came from those escapes," she says, since the fish found in the rivers were large ones of harvestable size.
She adds, "There's no reason to believe there was any breach in our regulatory obligations." Parker notes that companies and regulators can determine if there has been an escape by checking stocking, feeding and harvesting records. "If people are concerned whether companies are not reporting, the regulators will find out through stocking and harvest records."
Nell Halse, vice president of communications for Cooke Aquaculture, the only farmed salmon company operating in Maine, says the company, after it heard about the fish being found in the rivers, had its divers double-check all of its sites with fish. "We have not identified any breaches or issues." The company had an annual audit of its sites done by a third party last March and has decided to do an additional audit of its Maine farms, with site inspections and a review of documentation concerning the number of fish at each farm. In addition, Cooke and state agencies have taken samples from the DNA marking system of the company's fish in Maine, which can be used to track fish to a particular farm. "There's no evidence that any of our fish have been lost in Maine," she says.
Cooke Aquaculture also conducted audits and dives at its New Brunswick fish farms, looking first at its farms with marketBsized fish and checking all of the company's records.
The ASF points out that while escaped salmon can be captured and removed on the Magaguadavic and Dennys rivers, there is no way of removing them in many other rivers along the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine. Carr comments, "Government needs to take a leadership role in monitoring, reporting and enforcement to ensure transparency and accountability regarding escapes. As it stands now, the onus is on ASF to monitor escapees on the Magaguadavic River and to report to government and the public on escapes. In view of the dangers farmed escapees present to wild populations, government needs to be much more proactive in enforcing the regulations that do exist."
While reporting regulations have been in place in New Brunswick for only a few years, Cooke has been reporting any escapes in New Brunswick voluntarily for a number of years, according to Halse. She points out, "Cooke follows the same protocols in Nova Scotia, Maine and New Brunswick. We have the same standards throughout our operations." Also, with Cooke's eco-label certification since 2008, the company has been required to have internal and external audits. In Maine, the industry, state and federal agencies and nonBgovernmental organizations developed the reporting requirements and rules requiring external audits that have been in place for a much longer time.
Halse notes that Cooke makes its own cages, equipment and nets and services them, so the company has control over them. "They are designed for the location. If it's a high-energy site, they're designed for that site," with nets being stress-tested to see if they're suitable for a location with strong currents. For years fish farms have used double-netting, with an outside net using weights to prevent any seal attacks.
Parker notes that net-pen aquaculture companies are required to have in place a rigid code of containment to prevent any escapes. "A lot of work has been done in net-pen technology that has significantly reduced the number of escapes. The equipment is designed to work in a highly dynamic environment."
Risks to wild salmon debated
According to the ASF, when escaped salmon interbreed with the few endangered wild salmon that remain in the Bay of Fundy, the fitness and survival of the wild Atlantic salmon populations can be harmed. On September 8, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) confirmed the endangered status of the wild populations of the inner and outer Bay of Fundy. The COSEWIC report noted that "growth of the Canadian aquaculture industry has coincided with severe decline in wild populations in the nearby rivers in the Bay of Fundy."
"In North America, farm-origin salmon have been reported in 87% of the rivers investigated within 300 kilometres of aquaculture sites," the report states. "Even small percentages of escaped farmed salmon have the potential to negatively affect resident populations, either through demographic or genetic changes. There have been many reviews and studies showing that the presence of farmed salmon results in reduced survival and fitness of wild Atlantic salmon."
Carr states, "The continuation of escapes into the wild underscores the need for closed containment systems such as the one ASF and the Conservation Fund Freshwater Institute of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, are working on together. Our pilot research is providing information that will determine the feasibility of closed containment as an important alternative to open sea cage culture."
Parker, though, says that closed containment systems in water have had fish escape from them. "They're not a 100% guarantee against escapes."
Parker also states that studies have shown that farmed salmon do very poorly in the wild, with perhaps only 1% surviving, and interbreeding being "very, very rare." She believes that the fish found in the Magaguadavic and Dennys rivers pose a minimal risk to wild salmon, "particularly considering the small number of fish found." She adds, though, "Ideally, no farmed fish will be found in the rivers."
Halse also says some scientists believe farmed salmon don't have the ability to survive in the wild and interbreed with wild fish. "The survival rate is so poor when they do escape," she notes.
But along with the debate on the risks posed by escaped farmed salmon, there is also some agreement between fish farmers and salmon conservation groups. Halse observes, "We want to keep the fish on the farms and not see them in the rivers, and we want to work with conservation groups to rebuild the stocks." Cooke Aquaculture's hatcheries are raising some fish for restocking the Magaguadavic River, and the company has offered to discuss its protocols with the Atlantic Salmon Federation and to help with its riverBmonitoring program.
Halse adds that the Cooke family that owns Cooke Aquaculture, who are from St. George, are avid anglers and have a vested interest in wild salmon returning to the rivers. "We agree with those objectives very much."