Stopping the great escapes: Aquaculture firm calls off search for 29,616 rogue Atlantic salmon that may put B.C.’s wild stocks at risk of a dwindling food supply

Saturday, July 5, 2008

ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

VANCOUVER — A continent away from their native waters, disoriented and out of captivity for the first time in their lives, 30,000-odd Atlantic salmon are roaming free off the British Columbia coast.

Their mass exodus from a pen at Marine Harvest Canada’s Frederick Arm site on July 1 is B.C.’s largest farmed-salmon escape in eight years. It has spawned a government investigation, with Environment Ministry conservation officers combing the site to find out exactly what went wrong.

The company stopped trying to recapture the escaped fish yesterday afternoon, leaving 29,616 fish missing.

“They’re out, they’re free, they’ll be mingling,” said Raincoast Research biologist Alexandra Morton. And it doesn’t bode well for wild Pacific salmon.

The Atlantic salmon are “big, silly animals” who lack much of the instinct driving wild salmon’s life cycles, Ms. Morton said. “They do have instincts to feed, though, and that’s what they’re bred for, is to be voracious feeders.”

These appetites can take a bite out of wild salmon’s precious food supply – or they can gobble up vulnerable young salmon. It’s also possible the farmed salmon, although two years away from sexual maturity, will follow spawning Pacific salmon into rivers off the coast.

“[The rivers are] full of our little fry and smolts – they would simply start eating our young fish,” she said. “You don’t know whether they’re going to follow other spawning salmon into the rivers.”

Early on Canada Day, unusually strong ocean currents shifted the 10-tonne concrete block anchoring Pen 11, one of the 12 pens at the Frederick Arms site. The anchor fell into a crevice, pulling the net down with it and allowing the salmon inside to escape through an opening about 4.6 metres underwater.

Workers on-site saw the escape as it happened but were powerless to do anything, said Marine Harvest communications manager Ian Roberts. The anchor could have pulled them down with it, or snapped and shot up in the air.

Mr. Roberts said the company checks its shallower anchors every 60 days, but the system anchors are too deep to check regularly.

Staff reported the Canada Day escape to authorities, and, shortly after noon, tugboats and service vessels arrived to begin to stabilize the pen system. They finished yesterday morning.

A seine fishing vessel started trying to recapture the escaped fish around 6 p.m. Tuesday, but to no avail: The boat caught only 384 of the escaped salmon – just over 1 per cent – and the effort was called off yesterday around 2 p.m. after more than 24 hours without a single catch.

Now, both Marine Harvest and the Environment Ministry are conducting a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the escape. The company must issue a written report of the incident by next Tuesday. Divers are inspecting the nets and anchors, and conservation officers are analyzing materials on-site and taking statements from people involved. The government may press charges if investigators find the company was negligent or didn’t follow regulations.

The conservation officers are essentially law-enforcement officials. They have constabulary powers and will analyze all the evidence to determine whether the company was complying with regulations and if charges need to be laid.

“They’ll gather all the evidence and everything, they’ll take statements … that’ll all get rolled up into a report to Crown counsel,” said Nathan Nankivell of the Conservation Officer Service’s business and planning group. Mr. Nankivell said he can’t comment on any particulars of this investigation, which is still in its early stages.

After the escape of more than 30,000 farmed Atlantic salmon in the summer of 2000, the province introduced regulations obliging fish farms to check their nets and equipment regularly for wear and tear, to come up with plans on how to prevent and respond to escapes and to report all escapes promptly. Penalties for non-compliance include warnings, fines, charges and loss of licence.

Agriculture and Lands Ministry spokeswoman Liz Bicknell said the province takes incidents like this very seriously.

“The province is very, very interested in incremental improvement in this industry, and if there ever was a history of noncompliance with the farms, the province has the right and would not hesitate to actually remove a licence. So you have that very, very strong tool you can use, as well,” she said.

“To the best of my knowledge, no, that has never had to occur. But there are very, very strong expectations from the province the companies would adhere to the terms of their licences.”

John Werring, a salmon conservation biologist with the David Suzuki Foundation’s marine and freshwater conservation program, said government regulation is too lax when it comes to cracking down on industry rule-breakers.

“They’re trying to be really nice and hope industry will turn around and do the right thing,” he said. “We are a huge advocate of the big stick: If you have tough rules and tough enforcement, you’re going to get tough compliance. … Right now all they’re getting is little tiny slaps on the wrist, but if you make it a deterrent-level fine, they’re going to think twice the next time.”

Ms. Morton said farmed Atlantic salmon can learn to feed themselves and survive in the wild in three to four weeks, and can throw “a wrench in the gears” of wild salmon, whose numbers have dwindled drastically in recent years.

“Our rivers in the Pacific are becoming more and more depleted, and that makes them more vulnerable to colonization [by other species],” she said. “There’s only one species of salmon in the Atlantic, whereas there’s five in the Pacific, so that tells you they don’t really play well with others.”

Although resources and space are relatively abundant in the open oceans, things get dicey when freed Atlantic salmon get into rivers and compete with indigenous salmon for habitat and food.

Competition becomes particularly fierce with steelhead, Ms. Morton said: The steelhead is the Pacific species most closely related to its Atlantic cousin, and both favour the “riffled” spawning grounds, where swift-running shallow streams ripple over rocks.

Ms. Morton said sport fishermen have caught Atlantic salmon in spawning rivers that have visible bite marks and sores on them from their skirmishes with steelhead, and the interlopers give as good as they get.

Ms. Morton thinks farmed Atlantic salmon are regularly escaping from farm nets. She would like to see gill-netters paid to fish solely for escaped Atlantic salmon in the areas near the farms, using wide-weave nets designed to tangle the more docile farmed salmon while letting the wild salmon go.

She has one answer for how to prevent this from happening again: “Closed-containment, closed-containment, closed-containment. That solves everything.”

*****

ESCAPE ARTISTS: HOW FISH GO FREE

The B.C. government is pursuing a goal of zero escapes from fish farms on the West Coast, but has been able to attain that annual objective only three times in 20 years, despite stringent regulations and frequent site inspections.

How many escape?

The total number of fish escaping in any given year has been steadily declining because of improved operations, but between 1987 and 2006, the last year for which full data are available, more than 1.4 million farmed salmon escaped from pens in B.C. waters.

Recorded escapes per year:

1989 390,000

1991 229,000

1996 0

1999 0

2001 0

2003-05 16

2006 19,000

Escaped salmon, by breed:

Chinook 974,000

Atlantic 419,000

Steelhead 32,000

How do they escape?

Fish typically escape when pens are damaged by storms and accidents or are torn open by predators such as sea lions.

The latest escape, of about 30,000 Atlantic salmon, occurred when an anchor slipped to a low point on the ocean floor, pulling down a corner of the net pen.

Provincial government inspection reports show that between 1997 and 2000, most escapes (42 per cent) happened while fish were being handled, such as transferring them between boats and pens, while 26 per cent happened when nets failed and 15 per cent in accidents caused during boat operations.

Fish farms are required to report all escapes, but a study done in 2000 indicated significant under-reporting. A survey of commercial fishermen over a 17-day period found they had caught 10,826 Atlantic salmon – 40 per cent more than had been reported to have escaped.

Where do they go?

Some of the salmon that escape in B.C. are later caught far from home. Between 1991 and 2002, nearly 600 Atlantic salmon were caught in Alaskan waters. Alaska has no salmon farms, and the nearest one in B.C. is 1,000 kilometres to the south.

What are the risks?

A major concern is that escaped Atlantic salmon could start to breed in B.C. waters. In 2000, researchers reported that 153 juvenile Atlantics found over a three-year period in Vancouver Island streams came from farm fish breeding in the wild.

Other concerns raised by escaping salmon are increased food competition for wild fish, interbreeding between farmed and wild Pacific salmon, introduction of exotic diseases to wild stocks and the spread of sea lice from farmed fish to wild stocks.

Staff

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