Dead Salmon--All the Way from Norway

by Ted Williams




In 1969 Norway bestowed upon the world Atlantic-salmon aquaculture. It spread quickly to Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands, Canada, the US, Russia, Denmark, Chile and Australia.


At Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) board meetings as recently as the late 1990s we dined on ocean-farmed salmon. I liked it better than the wild stuff, because it wasn’t as dry. Atlantic-salmon aquaculture was a Godsend, we said. It would result in fewer wild salmon being consumed by humans. And we were right.


But not in the way we’d imagined. Fewer wild salmon are being consumed by humans today because, thanks in part to salmon aquaculture, there are lots fewer wild salmon. For example, about 100 salmon farms packed into Canada’s Bay of Fundy (the highest concentration in the world) have been largely responsible for devastating wild-salmon runs. Just 40 years ago some 40,000 wild salmon returned to the inner bay. Today returns are down to about 250.


Saltwater salmon farming is a global disaster. Nothing poses a graver threat to Salmo salar—not global warming, not habitat destruction, not even grossly unsustainable inshore and offshore netting by Norway, Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Greenland and Russia. But if all possible best practices are implemented, can Atlantic salmon be safely raised in ocean net pens? Norway has supplied the answer.


At a conference held in Alta, Norway, this past February—attended by most movers and shakers in the Atlantic-salmon-conservation world—the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research shared data indicating that the majority of the nation’s wild salmon have been compromised by hybridizing with aquaculture escapees. An analysis of 125 of Norway’s 650 salmon rivers revealed that only 35 percent of the stocks were genetically intact. Twenty-five percent had been severely compromised, 7 percent moderately compromised and 33 percent lightly compromised.


Salmon anglers are the only people on Earth who rejoice at the sight of lice. The presence of sea lice means a fish is a chromer fresh from the cold salt; once in freshwater these parasitic crustaceans fall away and die within hours. But no one celebrates the galaxies of sea lice that swirl around salmon net pens feasting on the blood, mucus and fins of smolts, killing many along with wild inshore fish like sea trout. In natural settings smolts and sea trout are safe, because sea lice don’t hang around bays and estuaries; but add a few salmon net pens and you’re lousy most of the year.


So hideous are the lice infestations in some Norwegian rivers that hatchery smolts have to be placed in tanks, towed past the net pens out of the fjords, and released in the open sea.


In 1994 Norway and the six other members of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, all major producers of farmed salmon, convened in Oslo to sign an agreement ponderously entitled “The Convention for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic Ocean to Minimize Impacts from Salmon Aquaculture on the Wild Salmon Stocks.” All signatories pledged to keep net pens no closer than 30 kilometers from the mouths of salmon rivers, and all promptly reneged.


Ignoring the history of virtually all pesticides and antibiotics, the industry in Norway and elsewhere assumed its lice problem was over and therefore declined to develop other drugs…


Fishing tourism is huge in Norway. Yet the government has seen fit to permit net pens at the mouths of the country’s best salmon rivers. The Alta, famed for huge fish and generally recognized as the greatest of all Atlantic-salmon rivers, has about 150 net pens in its fjord.


Pathogens proliferating in crowded net pens are rampant in Norway. These include pancreas disease, amoebic gill disease and infectious salmon anemia (a fatal, hemorrhagic virus transmitted by sea lice that replicates in the gills, kidney, liver, intestine, spleen, muscles and heart). In January 2015 Norway fjords boiled with an estimated 120,000 escaped steelhead trout, some of which carried pancreas disease that may have infected salmon and sea trout and some of which doubtless tore up incubating salmon eggs while attempting to spawn. Anglers were instructed not to eat the alien trout, because they’d been fed delousing drugs. Total salmon escapes for that year were reported at 160,000—the operative word being “reported.” Scientists set the figure closer to 800,000.


An ASF study comparing best practices (such as “codes of containment”) applied in Norway, Maine, Atlantic Canada and British Columbia placed Norway as the clear winner. For example, if escaped fish show up in a river and no company has reported a loss, Norway’s government conducts genetic testing, traces the escapees to the company and fines it heavily. The significance of the study is this: Despite all of the ecological squalor created by Norway’s salmon farms, the country is still considered a world leader in salmon-farming best practices. That pretty much says it all about the state of the industry worldwide.


The alleged silver bullet of delousing drugs—“Slice”—came online in the late 1990s. You mixed it with the feed, and presto: Smolts were pretty much lice-free. Ignoring the history of virtually all pesticides and antibiotics, the industry in Norway and elsewhere assumed its lice problem was over and therefore declined to develop other drugs to apply alternately with Slice. A decade later sea lice had built resistance, and Slice was basically useless. Now there’s talk of “cleaner fish” like cunners—small wrasse to be dumped into net pens where they’ll supposedly act as oceangoing oxpeckers, ravenously delousing smolts. But in lots of salmon-farmed waters cunners aren’t indigenous and are likely to wreak ecological havoc.


In 1983 5.5 percent of adult salmon entering the Magaguadavic were net-pen escapees. Today 98 to 99 percent of all salmon in the river are escapees—every one unaccounted for…


West Coast salmon farms in the US and Canada are packed not just with Atlantic salmon but also steelhead trout and Pacific salmon; and they suffer all of the ills of Norwegian farms. Since 90 percent of the farms in BC are Norwegian owned, Dan Lewis, who directs Clayoquot Action, a group committed to protecting the biocultural diversity of Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Sound, wanted to see what his province is in for. So he organized the “Wild Salmon Delegation to Norway,” which undertook a two-week fact-finding mission that included the Alta conference. “What we found is an industry beset by problems such as disease outbreaks, sea-lice infestations and farmed-salmon escapes,” Lewis reported. “The situation in Norway is dire; one headline we saw read: ‘Five years left to save wild salmon.’”


Atlantic-salmon angler-activist Nat Reed, a conservation hero who bootstrapped the environmental records of the Nixon and Ford administrations while serving as assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, offered this assessment in his acceptance remarks as honoree at ASF’s 2013 New York dinner: “Norway, considered by the majority of the world as a land with a social conscience and a leader in environmental affairs, is the largest villain when it comes to allowing extensive sea and even fjord netting and permitting salmon farms often at the mouths of their once highly productive rivers . . . . They are destroying their own rivers’ salmon stocks and have even taken to intercepting the migrating salmon headed for the northern Russian salmon rivers.”


And Chris Buckley, ASF’s past US chairman who attended the Alta conference with Reed and spoke on ASF’s behalf, told me: “What worries North Americans is that whatever the Norwegians decide to do will be what everyone else ends up doing. Norway’s aquaculture practices are going to prevail in every place they do business, and they do heavy business in Canada, Chile, Ireland, Scotland and Russia. There are some rivers in Canada where introgression from farmed fish has destroyed the wild runs. That will happen in a lot of western Atlantic rivers.”


Rivers collected by the Bay of Fundy are already dominated by net-pen escapees. On New Brunswick’s Magaguadavic a 24-year ASF monitoring program reveals virtual elimination of wild salmon by farmed-fish invasion and introgression. In 1983 5.5 percent of adult salmon entering the Magaguadavic were net-pen escapees. Today 98 to 99 percent of all salmon in the river are escapees—every one unaccounted for because, unlike Norway, Canada doesn’t trace the origin of escapees.


Not that checking genetics Norway-style is the best solution. Anglers have no way of doing that, and the process is time consuming. External marking would work better. “We think it’s critical that all fish in the industry be marked,” said ASF’s executive director for research and environment, Jon Carr. “We’re trying to get Canada to require that. In 2013 we had 71 escapees show up over 10 days in the Magaguadavic. That’s just one river, so this was obviously a major escape event—probably well over 10,000 fish.”


Maine isn’t perfect, but it’s doing better than Canada or Norway. Disease is under control. Introgression isn’t much of an issue for two reasons: 1) Major escapes no longer happen, and 2) wild salmon have been essentially wiped out by factors not fully understood. Finally, while lice are a problem, they’re less prolific than in Norway, because Maine water, more distant from the Gulf Stream, is colder.


Most of the progress in Maine can be attributed to the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), far stronger than Canada’s version. In 1993, when RESTORE: The North Woods and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation petitioned to list US Atlantic salmon as endangered, they were cursed from hell to breakfast by anglers, aquaculturists, politicians, the hook-and-bullet press and even ASF. Maine governor Angus King proclaimed that endangered status “will kill the [aquaculture] industry dead, D-E-A-D, dead” and that “if you carry it too far, everything’s an endangered species: I guarantee that a mouse in Waterville, Maine, is different in some ways than a mouse in Watertown, New York.” Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) predicted “disastrous consequences.” Sen. William Cohen (R-ME) threatened to legislatively vandalize the ESA. And State Rep. Robert Daigle (R-Arundel) called the ESA “a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of those who have no vested interest in the economy or the people of eastern Maine.”


Down East salmon were listed as endangered on November 13, 2000. Less than a month later Maine sued the feds. Joining in this failed litigation were the state Chamber of Commerce, Atlantic Salmon of Maine (an aquaculture venture), Stolt Sea Farm, the Maine Aquaculture Association, the Maine Pulp & Paper Association, the Wild Blueberry Commission, and blueberry growers Jasper Wyman & Son and Cherryfield Foods.


Before the listing, salmon aquaculture in Maine was well on its way to being killed “dead, D-E-A-D, dead” by the industry itself. Fallowing is the basic, common-sense prerequisite for any kind of farming, but the industry refused to do it. As a result, sea lice reached critical mass at permanent net-pen sites, and fish were killed repeatedly by the lice themselves and by louse-spread infectious salmon anemia. One pandemic required destruction of every penned fish in Cobscook Bay—about 1.5 million adults. Refusal to fallow resulted in successful litigation by environmental groups and heavy fines. When a court order mandated fallowing, the industry complained that it had been sorely abused—“forced [temporarily] to go out of business.”


At that time Maine aquaculturists were using a European strain of salmon that grew faster than North American hatchery stock but that posed a far greater introgression threat to native fish. The industry refused to switch to North American stock, so another lawsuit and court order forced it to depopulate. Stolt Sea Farm and Heritage Salmon—both based in Canada, where European fish had long been outlawed—were able to convert their Maine sites, because they had North American fish on hand. But Atlantic Salmon of Maine had to sell out to Cooke Aquaculture.


Today, thanks to the ESA and input from ASF, Trout Unlimited and the Conservation Law Foundation, Maine salmon farms operate under a standardized containment system that uses best practices and best hardware and is independently audited. As they mature, salmon are repeatedly pumped from net pens into the holds of large vessels where they get hydrogen peroxide baths that knock off the lice. The salmon get dumped back into the net pens, and the bath water, which is pretty environmentally benign, gets dumped back into the sea. But some of the detached lice are still alive, and they go with it.


Perhaps Maine’s best practice—again forced by the ESA—is to genetically ID all fish so that any escapees can be traced back not only to the company but also to the individual net pen. Obese, stump-finned fish with no genetic identity are safely assumed to have escaped from Canadian net pens.


In January 2015 the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the most respected environmental watchdog for marketed fish, upgraded Maine-farmed Atlantic salmon from its red “avoid” list to its yellow “good alternative” list, thanks to such “stringent operating permit mandates” as containment protocol and feed based more on vegetables than fish. Net-pen fish everywhere else in the world are red-listed.


Cooke Aquaculture, currently the only operation in Maine, does brisk business in Maritime Canada and Chile, where it eschews the best practices it employs in Maine and where it is therefore red-listed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In 2013 the company was fined $490,000 for killing Atlantic lobsters with an illegal pesticide deployed against its sea-lice infestations. The same year infectious salmon anemia ravaged two of Cooke’s Canadian facilities in Newfoundland, obliging it to destroy 3,700 metric tons of product—for which it was compensated by taxpayers to the tune of $13 million. “Practices are different from region to region,” Carr said. “I think companies just do whatever they can get away with. That’s where our frustration lies.”


In one recent three-year period aquaculturists who lost fish to infectious salmon anemia shook down the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for $92.7 million, a tradition the agency has found tiresome. So it recently announced that, at least for this disease, the industry is on its own.


Is there a solution? Maine doesn’t provide one. Virtually all of the state’s success can be attributed to the ESA and the tiny scale of Cooke’s operation, both lacking in other nations.


It’s easy to cite on-land, closed-containment facilities as the solution. But for the foreseeable future that’s neither honest nor realistic. Denmark has mandated closed containment, but that is unlikely to happen elsewhere, because the industry takes a dim view of the added expense—and in most countries the industry is too powerful and entrenched.


Still, land-based, closed-containment facilities are popping up around the world. There are three in Canada, four in the US, two in Denmark, two in China, one in France, one in Poland, one in Scotland and one in Ireland. Others are in the works, including a large facility in, of all places, Florida.


Salmon produced by these farms are free of contaminants found in net-pen fish, so they don’t endanger public health. Nor do they pollute the sea with warped genes, parasites, feces, bacteria and viruses. As a result, Monterey Bay Aquarium lists them as its “Super Green” best choice.


But so far land-based, closed-containment facilities are small, producing far less than the 2,500-metric-ton threshold of commercial viability (determined in a study by the Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute, based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia). And their startup costs are twice that of net pens. So the industry is understandably loath to switch. The director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, Sebastian Belle, offers this: “Growing salmon in tanks on land is like growing dairy cows in barns underwater. It’s not their native environment. People believe there are fewer escapes, but that’s not borne out by the peer-reviewed data. Escape rates are higher than in net pens. If there’s an accident, say a truck backs into a tank, water goes to the drains, and fish follow. Typically there are no screens on the drains. And you have to raise fish at 10 times the density of net pens. That’s an animal-welfare issue.”


Belle’s statement is important as an illustration of industry angst, but its content requires vetting. His industry already grows eggs to smolts in land-based tanks, and now it’s planning to grow “super-size smolts” that supposedly can better tolerate lice. Why not go a little further and raise adults? Fish are, indeed, more crowded in closed-containment facilities than in net pens, but if that’s really cruelty to animals, all trout hatcheries need to be shut down. As for the “peer reviewed data,” ASF has asked the industry to provide it for years and has received nothing.


“I don’t know that you can get all the farms out of the sea right away,” said ASF’s president and CEO, Bill Taylor. “Maybe it’s a situation where it happens slowly, where there are no new sites licensed except closed-containment. That’s the only way the industry makes sense.”


There’s no doubt that Atlantic salmon can be safely raised in land-based, closed-containment farms. But back to my original question: Can they be safely raised in the ocean? Maybe on an extremely small scale where there are few or no wild salmon and with all of the best practices, as in Maine. But certainly not the way they’re being raised everywhere else.


“We’re holding Norway up to a high standard, because we believe they have the best practices compared to all other jurisdictions,” said ASF’s Jon Carr. But, as he and everyone else who attended the Alta conference will point out, Atlantic-salmon aquaculture in Norway is a catastrophe spreading around the globe like infectious salmon anemia.


The big take-home lesson from ASF’s study accurately citing Norway as a world leader in salmon-farm safety is this: Whenever and wherever you put more than a few net pens in the ocean, you will have an ecological train wreck.


--from Fly Rod & Reel