Conference features lively debate on wild vs. farmed salmon issue
SEATTLE - Commercial fishermen may not be the only ones facing a major challenge from the global salmon glut.
At a recent conference in Seattle, critics of the farmed salmon industry pointed to potentially harmful impacts on wild fish stocks from net pen-cultured salmon and steelhead, including ESA-listed fish in Puget Sound. The three-day gathering in Seattle was sponsored by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
As aquaculture continues to grow worldwide, some conference participants argued that the wild salmon industry should join fish farmers to foster new markets, but others adopted a more confrontational stance, citing potential dangers to wild stocks in British Columbia, Alaska and Washington state from domesticated escapees that could bring exotic diseases to wild stocks and crowd them out of native streams, while waste from pens could pollute neighboring waters.
But NOAA Fisheries scientist Bill Waknitz said his agency is not too worried about the risks to wild fish from their domesticated brethren, especially in Puget Sound, where Chinook and chum salmon are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Only eight net pen sites are currently in use in the Sound.
He pointed to a 2002 NOAA technical memo that looked at the potential impacts of Atlantic salmon and found low risks compared to the "status quo," namely, the annual release of millions of fish raised in confined spaces (Northwest hatcheries) and released purposefully into the wild to provide more harvest opportunities for both the commercial and recreational fishing sectors.
Waknitz said fish disease was already a common occurrence at hatcheries, where about half of the fish released carry BKD [bacterial kidney disease] and other pathogens in lesser amounts.
In 2002, West Coast and Alaska hatcheries released 2.3 billion salmon smolts, said Kevin Amos, NOAA Fisheries' National Aquatic Animal Health Coordinator, while 23 million smolts were brought to Atlantic salmon pens, with only 23 documented escapes of the farmed fish. Amos said that's a much improved situation from years past. About one million Atlantics were estimated to have escaped from 1992 to 2002.
But the evidence hasn't deterred a slew of negative press on the farmed salmon industry. Amos quoted from recent stories in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the New York Times, Environment magazine and a pamphlet funded by Ecotrust, that mentioned these potential problems as "real" problems.
NOAA Fisheries' Amos considered risks from such escapes low, but not just because of the small number of escapees.
"We have yet to find an 'exotic' pathogen in the Pacific Northwest," Amos said, noting that all diseases seen in farmed salmon were first observed in wild stocks, despite the scary stories in the media. He mentioned the controversy surrounding the suspected infestation of sea lice in wild pink salmon in BC's Broughton Peninsula from nearby netpen fish, though the scientific verdict in still out, Canadian researchers said at the meeting. As for now, he said there is no evidence to demonstrate that Atlantic salmon are causing disease outbreaks in wild Pacific salmon.
But Amos cautioned that the failure to prove any connection doesn't "dismiss the responsibility of owner/managers to operate within the boundaries of the law or maintain reasonable bio-security programs on their sites."
Farmed salmon spokesman Alex Trent, executive director of Salmon of the Americas, said his industry has not just been misrepresented in the press, "but it's been lied about." He pointed out that New York Times food writer Marian Burros never issued a retraction after reporting falsely that farmed salmon contained less amounts of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids than wild fish.
Of Hogs and Harm
But Rebecca Goldburg, from the Park Avenue-based Environmental Defense Fund which claims 400,000 members, showed pictures of industrial hog facilities in South Carolina during her discussion of industrial fish farming.
Choosing Atlantic salmon is a "worst pick" for seafood consumers according to information on her group's Web site, because fish farms potentially pollute nearby waters and deplete other wild fish stocks used to make fish meal to raise salmon. It takes two to three pounds of wild fish that ends up in the dry fish meal (typically anchovies from Peru) to make one pound of farmed salmon.
Goldburg dodged the farmed salmon/PCB issue saying three small studies suggested a problem but more data is needed. She admitted that she was not aware of other scientific work that has found higher PCB levels in wild salmon.
The escapee issue was addressed by Prof. John Volpe of the University of Alberta, who thinks BC fisheries scientists have seriously underestimated the number of farmed fish that have entered wild fish streams.
Though he noted that provincial authorities actually tried to introduce Atlantic salmon into wild streams from 1905 to 1934, Volpe said the stock likely didn't take hold because wild runs were holding their own in those days. But he sees a different picture today, with depressed steelhead populations opening up a lot of habitat for colonization.
Volpe pointed out that the B.C. farmed salmon industry had consolidated considerably from 1989, when "mainly dope smokers" ran small netpen businesses, with about 75 different companies involved. Since then, the industry has winnowed down to 11 corporations, as productivity improved to address competition from Norway and Chile.
Chile has won that battle hands down. Volpe cited figures that the South American country raises 196 metric tons of salmon per full-time worker, while B.C. only produces 38 tons per FTE. B.C.'s farmed salmon industry produced 73,000 metric tons of farmed salmon in 2002, while Chile produced 454,000 metric tons (up more than 300 percent from 1996).
After adding up other sources of farmed salmon from Norway, Great Britain, Ireland and Scotland, the huge salmon glut has had a major effect on wild salmon prices. Volpe said prices for wild fish have declined even faster than the U.S. and B.C. market share - they are down more than 50 percent.
Meanwhile, the wild salmon industry is still in economic freefall, and fishermen, especially in Alaska, will have to face a major re-structuring, maybe by cutting their fleet in half and reducing hatchery production to battle the challenges brought about by worldwide salmon farming. This year, the ex-vessel value of the entire 200-million-plus Alaska salmon catch was worth only about one-third of the $600 million that BPA spent in 2003 to recover ESA-listed stocks, pay for its fish and wildlife program and get one million salmon back over Bonneville Dam.
But perhaps the real sleeper issue that left many wondering about the future was a presentation by NOAA policymaker Tim Keeney, a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Commerce, who explained his agency's new initiative to support ocean-based aquaculture within the 200-mile limit of the U.S. coast.
The new policy, which still needs enabling legislation, was questioned by several participants, who pointed out how skeptical they were about raising types of fish like black cod and halibut now caught by U.S. harvesters. They said it would likely be a re-play of how U.S. farmed salmon technology had been pretty much co-opted in other parts of the world where cheaper labor and less environmental constraints had driven down prices so far that both farmed and wild salmon interests on the West Coast have suffered serious economic harm.