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Escaped Salmon Pose Threat to Wild Stock

by Anna Mehler Paperny
Globe and Mail, July 3, 2008

VANCOUVER -- Tens of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon escaped from their pen into an inlet off the B.C. coast, a fish farm company said yesterday. If they survive, they could threaten already dwindling indigenous salmon stocks.

Provincial officials are investigating the incident, which happened early Tuesday, and the company owning the farm may face charges. Environmental groups say the mass escape demonstrates the dangers fish farms pose to wild salmon.

Strong ocean currents shifted a net holding 30,000 salmon in Marine Harvest's Frederick Arm farm site near Campbell River, pulling down a corner of the cage and allowing the fish to swim free, said Clare Backman of Marine Harvest. The company is not sure whether any fish were left in the pen, but it's possible all 30,000 escaped.

"One of the anchor lines ... apparently slipped to a low spot on the ocean floor and in so doing pulled down the corner of the cage so much the fish were able to swim out, which is really unusual," he said.

Jennifer Lash, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, said if the Atlantic salmon breed, they'll compete with wild salmon, whose stocks have already fallen sharply.

"You get juvenile Atlantics, they're not indigenous to the coast and they start competing with the wild salmon and they start putting the wild salmon at risk. Everything has to be done to stop having those Atlantic salmon in the ocean," she said. "Any time you bring in an invasive species or a non-indigenous species ... it poses a threat to the existing biological diversity."

The only reliable way to prevent escapes like these is to farm fish in closed-off pens, Ms. Lash said. Environmental groups and Marine Harvest itself have called on the provincial government to finance research into closed-containment salmon farming.

Ms. Lash said the farmed salmon could also carry diseases, antibiotics or pesticides in their systems that could pose a health risk. Mr. Backman said the salmon that escaped were healthy, weren't on medication and had low levels of sea lice, a parasite that has been shown to jump from farmed to wild salmon, killing young wild fry.

He also said the escaped fish would be safe for people to eat if they catch one.

"They should keep the fish, clean it and bake in a 400-degree oven with a ginger and green-onion garnish. Then serve with fresh lemon slices," he wrote in an e-mail.

Farms are required to report escapes within 24 hours. Provincial officials are inspecting the site and will decide whether to initiate a full-scale investigation that could result in charges of negligence against Marine Harvest.

"We're still assessing the extent of the damage, and ministry staff are on site determining the best course of action," Agriculture and Lands Ministry spokeswoman Liz Bicknell said.

"They'd have to see what was in place: What has actually happened? Were the anchors correctly installed? Were they adhering to the licence and tenure agreements? Those are the sorts of things they would be looking for."

Regulations require fish farms to inspect their nets every 60 days and develop plans to prevent and respond to escapes. Possible sanctions include written warnings, charges resulting in fines and revoking the company's licence.

In 2006, Marine Harvest received a warning for failing to report a fish escape. The company was charged with negligence after 1,587 salmon escaped from a Vancouver Island fish farm in July of 2004. The company was acquitted and B.C. Supreme Court rejected a Crown appeal of the acquittal last fall.

"The charges were predicated on the fact that we had knowingly or had not exercised due care and attention leading up to the escape and the judge did not agree with that," Mr. Backman said.

A commercial seine fishing boat started trying to recapture the fish on Tuesday evening. Within the few hours the vessel was out, the crew caught a couple of hundred of the farmed salmon, using a net Mr. Backman said allows them to sort out the Atlantic salmon and throw the Pacific fish back alive.

"It's very unlikely they would catch even more than 10 per cent," he said. "The experience with recapture has been that these fish are hard to recapture - they tend to not school the way [wild] salmon do."

Ocean currents are always strong at this time of year, Mr. Backman said, but he can't remember the last time this many fish escaped: In 2007 the company reported that 10 fish escaped.

Marine Harvest is internally reviewing the escape, which Mr. Backman said probably cost the company about $500,000. "We will be taking every step that we need to, internally, to review our processes and to look at what could have been done to avoid this and we will update our procedures going forward."

Anna Mehler Paperny
Escaped Salmon Pose Threat to Wild Stock
Globe and Mail, July 3, 2008

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