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Bumper Crops of Farmed Salmon Sinks Prices, Threatens Wild Fishery

by Hal Bernton, staff reporter
Seattle Times, September 2, 2001

SALTSPRING ISLAND, B.C. -- They swim in a floating mesh pen and leap in skittering displays of aerial acrobatics. More than 50,000 young Atlantic salmon fattening in the cool blue waters of the Canadian Pacific.

These fish have emerged in the past decade as the biggest source of salmon for the world's seafood consumers. In just the past year, global farmed-salmon production increased 18 percent to reach 2.5 billion pounds, far outweighing the 1.65 billion-pound wild-salmon haul.

While a boon to consumers looking for a deal, the farms have knocked Seattle-based processors from their perch atop the salmon industry, once driven by freezing and canning the wild Alaska and Pacific Northwest harvests.

Wild-salmon processors are struggling, retreating from some Alaska harvest grounds and closing plants amid an onslaught of farmed fish that has swamped salmon markets and collapsed prices during this summer's harvest.

On Aug. 24, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles declared an economic disaster in western Alaska salmon fisheries, blaming part of the problem on competition from farmed salmon.

The Saltspring farm 12 floating pens is owned by Nutreco, a Dutch company that has operations in five nations and is the biggest player in the increasingly corporate world of salmon farming.

The companies have turned salmon into livestock that are inoculated to ward off disease and fed pigment-fortified pellets to turn their flesh a pleasing pink.

In British Columbia and in Washington, where eight Puget Sound farms produce Atlantics each year, salmon farms have come under scrutiny.

Government officials under pressure from conservationists and commercial fishermen are trying to gauge the risk escaped Atlantic salmon pose to wild Pacific salmon.

And in Europe, the farms are trying to bolster consumer confidence after new research, widely publicized earlier this year in Britain, found farmed salmon contained trace amounts of chemical contaminants.

Still, the industry surges onward.

Farmers keep finding ways to produce more fish with less feed. They have state-of-the art quality control, delivering fish live to the processing plants year-round.

And they've made huge market gains, turning fresh salmon into a global commodity that can be flown from Vancouver, B.C., to San Francisco or from Chile to Midwestern supermarkets.

"Farmed salmon is offered fresh all year round, and that's a huge advantage for supermarkets and restaurants," said Christophe Pelletier, business-development manager for Nutreco's Canadian subsidiary.

The salmon-farming industry was born in the 1970s in Norway, which still reigns as the top-producing nation. But the most dramatic production increases in recent years have been in Chile, where its rugged Pacific coast now hosts hundreds of farms.

Washington salmon farms are a footnote in the global industry, harvesting about 10 million to 11 million pounds of Atlantics yearly.

Norway-based Omega Seafoods operates eight Puget Sound farms, including several around Bainbridge Island. The fish are processed at a Seattle plant along the Duwamish River. Industry growth has been stymied by controversies over shoreline sites and hurdles in obtaining operating permits.

In British Columbia, the salmon-farming industry went through explosive growth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then a period of consolidation as small operators ceded to large corporate farmers. Today, 17 companies operate and 105 farms produce about 5 percent of the world's salmon supplies.

Canadian producers say they are interested in developing more sites, but for the past six years, the provincial government has imposed a moratorium on most new farms while regulators sought to assess the environmental effects.

The moratorium has been backed by many commercial salmon fishermen, some tribal groups and British Columbia environmentalists who say the industry has been poorly regulated.

"The industry treats criticism as a public-relations challenge rather than as a reason to make substantive changes in the ways they're doing business," said Lynn Hunter of Vancouver Island, a former member of Canada's House of Commons who now works for the David Suzuki Foundation, one of the province's most prominent environmental groups.

"Back in the '80s, many farms weren't that well-run," said Rusty Smith, the Saltspring operations manager. "We didn't know that much about this. But we do now."

Improvements in farming

Industry officials acknowledge making mistakes as they launched salmon farming in British Columbia but say they have improved. For example:

Escapees: Gauging the risk

Elsewhere in North America, introduced fish species have crowded out native species, which in the Northwest could be the Pacific wild salmon.

In British Columbia, more than 345,000 Atlantic salmon reportedly escaped from farms over nine years ending in 1999, according to a report by the auditor general of Canada. In Washington, more than 500,000 Atlantics escaped from farms over three years that ended in 1998.

Most of these domesticated Atlantics appeared to fail in the wild, but some survived, migrating as far north as Alaska. They also made appearances in 77 rivers and streams in British Columbia, according to the auditor general's report.

Escaped adults have been found in at least a dozen Washington streams.

John Volpe, a researcher at the University of Victoria, says that Atlantics have successfully spawned in several British Columbia streams and that Atlantic juveniles identified in three B.C. streams could successfully compete with wild steelhead trout in the same streams.

"Atlantic salmon spawn ... and produce viable offspring. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no turning back," Volpe said in testimony to a Canadian Parliament committee. That committee, in a recently released report, said the ability of Atlantics to establish themselves appears much greater than earlier assessments.

But others say escaped Atlantics pose a low risk to wild stocks.

Washington state biologist Kevin Amos says that more than a dozen attempts to deliberately introduce Atlantic salmon into the wild ended in failure. Amos, a fish-health specialist, says even though some Atlantics can spawn in Pacific streams, their offspring are unlikely to permanently establish themselves.

Amos says transfer of disease and parasites from farmed fish to wild stocks is possible, but it's more likely the other way around. Nonetheless, "we don't think that it's a good thing for Atlantics to be free," Amos said. "And we're stressing escape prevention."

Turning feed to flesh

At the Saltspring farm, the 12 net pens will yield more than 3.6 million pounds of Atlantic salmon. The growth cycle from hatchery egg to harvest takes three to four years.

The great allure of the Atlantic is its ability to efficiently convert feed into flesh. For every 1.2 to 1.4 kilograms of dry feed, the farms produce about a kilogram of fish flesh. That's compared with more than 2 kilograms of feed required to produce a kilogram of flesh on penned Pacific chinook, the focus of the fledgling B.C. industry in the 1970s.

Twice a day, the pellets containing soy meal, corn-gluten meal and canola oil are flung into the water by an automated arm that whirs at the center of each pen. The fish are cut off from the feed five days before harvest, a process known as "starving" that is meant to reduce oil content and improve flavor.

The pellets also contain fish meal and oils processed from anchovies or mackerel. The fish products help fuel the Atlantics' growth but also tie the farmers to the wild-ocean harvests of bait fish.

While roaming the ocean, the bait fish sometimes pick up chemical pollutants. The most serious problems are in the North Atlantic, where trace amounts of dioxins and other chemicals have shown up in fish meal.

In a report released earlier this year, Miriam Jacobs, researcher at the toxicology group of the University of Surrey in England, detected polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in Scottish farmed salmon and in fish that escaped from farms or were hatched in the wild. The levels sometimes exceeded the recommended maximum daily dietary intake set by the British government.

Another test performed by Canadian geneticist Michael Easton, under contract with the Suzuki foundation, found that five feed samples and four B.C. farmed salmon had higher PCB levels than four wild samples.

Nutreco has acknowledged that the Atlantic bait fish, which roam seas rife with European industrial pollution, may have dioxin and PCB contaminants. Nutreco has shifted to Pacific bait fish, which have dioxin and PCB concentrations "considerably lower" than Atlantic bait fish and within standards set by the World Health Organization, according to a Nutreco corporate report.

PCBs are also being tracked in the Pacific Northwest, where National Marine Fisheries Service biologists have found them in juvenile wild salmon and in those released from hatcheries. Some of the highest levels were found in the Duwamish waterway, at concentrations that could harm the fishes' health. But by the time they grew to adults, these fish would have PCB levels well under federal limits for human consumption, according to John Stein, a federal fisheries biologist.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials say the overall level of PCB contamination in U.S. foods has plummeted dramatically during the past 20 years, and annual salmon surveys do not indicate a PCB problem.

The FDA plans additional investigations of PCBs and salmon.

Future of fish farming

Chile is expected to remain in the forefront of new farmed-fish production. But in the next few years, the British Columbia provincial government, which was elected in June on a pro-growth platform, is expected to lift the moratorium and increase the pace of development.

Farms are experimenting with pen systems that could reduce the risks of escape and disease transfer.

Another technological frontier is genetic engineering. Earlier this year, Aqua Bounty Farms, a company with offices in United States and Canada, sought permission from the FDA to produce an Atlantic salmon inserted with a special gene that could cause a 10-fold increase in growth.

The industry association for British Columbia salmon farmers has gone on record against any production of genetically engineered salmon.

Fish farmers also are branching out into new species. In recent years, the farms have begun producing sea bass and tuna. Halibut a prized flatfish caught by Pacific Northwest and Alaska fishermen also is being farmed in small amounts in Norway.

Nutreco also has been experimenting with the traditional staple of fish and chips: the humble cod.

Related Links:
Salmon Show Alarming Levels of Illegal Chemicals Seattle Times, 9/1/01


Hal Bernton, staff reporter
Bumper Crops of Farmed Salmon Sinks Prices, Threatens Wild Fishery
Seattle Times, September 2, 2001

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