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Salmon Farmers Must Mark Fish to Help Identify Any That Escape

by Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, March 31, 2002

Washington salmon farmers will have to mark their stock under new state rules intended to discern the source of escaped fish.

Thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon have escaped in recent years from Canadian and Washington fish farms. So far, no wild runs of Atlantic salmon have been documented in the Pacific Northwest, but if that happens the state rules would require fish farms to bear the costs of eradicating them so they don't compete with native Pacific salmon.

The state-marking requirement appears to be a first in North America and will be accomplished by briefly chilling young fish to give their ear bones a distinct growth pattern. The rules also will empower the agency to approve permits, inspect the farms and cite those responsible for escaped fish.

State Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists drafted the rules and are expected to publish the final versions this year.

Washington is a small player in a huge global salmon-farming industry. Cypress Island, a subsidiary of a Norwegian salmon-farming company, operates all eight Washington farms, including several around Bainbridge Island, that produce about 10 to 12 millions pounds of Atlantics each year.

State Fish and Wildlife initially regulated farms, but most of that power was stripped away in 1985 after industry officials complained the agency was hostile to salmon aquaculture.

"Once fish escaped, we clearly had authority. But we had no power to tell a fish farm to fix the leak," said Andy Appleby, a state fishery biologist. Appleby helped persuade the legislature to pass a new law expanding the department's control over salmon or other saltwater fish farms that might be developed.

The Atlantics are raised in net pens that float in coastal waters. During the past decade, more than 900,000 Atlantics reportedly have escaped from Washington and Canadian pens. Cut off from their farm feed, most escaped Atlantics have starved, according to Appleby. But stray fish have been found in more than a dozen Washington streams and more than 75 British Columbia streams.

Canadian researcher John Volpe has documented successful Atlantic spawning in three British Columbia streams. The next big step would be for the juveniles to mature and establish self-sustaining populations.

Washington state's Appleby doubts Atlantics will take that step soon. He says they appear ill-suited to the rigors of life in the Pacific.

But in Alaska, there's a different view of the Atlantic threat. Salmon farming is banned there, and many commercial fishermen are suffering under the competition from farmed fish.

"The annual release of Atlantic salmon in the Pacific coast ecosystem amounts to biological pollution and poses an enormous threat to wild salmon," says an Alaska Department of Fish and Game in a report compiled on salmon farming.

In that report, Alaska state biologists say salmon farms sometimes deliberately allow undersized fish to slip out of the pens. Industry officials in both Canada and Washington say there are no deliberate releases.

To ease the Atlantic threat, state officials want Canada and Washington to phase out fish farming in salt water and rear the fish in tanks set on land. Until then, Alaska officials have called for a series of new restrictions, including a cap on production and sterilization of farmed females.

Washington and Canadian officials reject Alaska's recommendations, calling land-based tank production an experimental technology.

Hal Bernton
Salmon Farmers Must Mark Fish to Help Identify Any That Escape
The Seattle Times, March 31, 2002

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