Escapes & Alien Species
91% of the salmon currently raised today in BC’s salmon farms are Atlantic salmon. The other 9% consists of Pacific species, Chinook and coho.1 The decision to raise alien Atlantics in Pacific waters largely came from the entry of Norwegian companies into the BC aquaculture industry. Atlantic salmon was their farm species of choice in Norway, and for decades they invested in developing markets for this product.
The report Fishy Business: The Economics of Salmon Farming In BC notes that in the late 1980s, Norwegian companies were faced with strict environmental regulations and farm size restrictions in their own country, so they decided to expand in countries where regulations were less strict (i.e. Canada, Chile).
The Environmental Threat of Escapes
The escape of farmed Pacific and Atlantic salmon into wild salmon habitat poses a serious threat to indigenous wild Pacific salmon. Escapes have the potential to out-compete wild salmon for habitat and food and spread disease and pathogens to wild fish.
The WWF Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue Report on Escapes found that escaped farmed salmon “are usually recorded within 500 km of the escape site, but have been recorded up to 2,000 – 4,500 km from the escape/release site.” 2
The Atlantic Salmon Watch Program (ASWP), a cooperative research program operated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and BC’s Ministry of Agriculture and Lands (BCMAL), conducted monitoring and removal of escaped Atlantic salmon from streams. While operational, this program suggested that there have been cases of escaped farmed Atlantic salmon surviving and then breeding with other escaped Atlantic salmon in BC streams. However, the program has been abandoned and is no longer functional beyond a webpage and phone number and it has been reported that messages left at this number typically receive no response.
A study published in Conservation Biology reported that non-native Atlantic salmon were found in over 80 wild salmon spawning streams in British Columbia, with feral juvenile Atlantic salmon having been discovered at three locations.3 However, very little research has been done with regards to the extent of Atlantic salmon populations in BC rivers today.
Escape Numbers in BC Likely Much Higher than Reported
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands (BCMAL), the agency responsible for tracking industry-reported farmed salmon escapes, over 1.5 million4 farmed salmon escaped into BC waters between 1987 and 2008. Escapes were due to system failure related to extreme weather, net tears or structural damage resulting from propeller or boat collision with the nets, attacks by predators such as seals and sea lions or through human error and vandalism.
However, these figures likely represent the minimum. The magnitude of unreported escapes is unknown due to failure to report all escapes and those due to “leakage”.
Salmon farmers typically only report large-scale escape events.5 Unreported escapes that occur during what industry calls “leakage” is the ongoing small-scale escape of farmed salmon during ordinary operations. Research done in BC estimates that 0.5 to 1 percent of juvenile Atlantic salmon in production “leak” from their pens each year.6 If we assume that 1% of the approximately 80,000 tonnes of farmed salmon currently produced each year in BC is leaked, this translates into approximately 160,000 additional farmed salmon escaping into BC’s marine environment on a yearly basis.
By omitting leakage from the equation, government greatly underestimates and downplays the full magnitude of escapes. For instance, BCMAL reports that in 2005 only 64 salmon escaped from BC salmon farms while 70,400 tonnes of salmon were produced for market; and that in 2006 the industry reported 19,000 fish escapes during the production of 78,000 tonnes of farmed salmon.
Escapes on the Rise, the Result of Weak Regulations in Canada?
Statement from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada:
“In the 1990s, increasingly high numbers of escapes from farming pens in B.C. lead to the creation of the provincial Salmon Aquaculture Policy Framework in 1999, which works to improve aquaculture management policies. DFO, the provinces and the industry groups work to achieve “zero escape” of fish from net-pen facilities.” 7
Despite new guidelines for net strength and pen system anchoring in Canada, BCMAL reported more than 100,000 escaped farmed salmon in 2008, more than the previous six years combined. In 2009, escape events reported at least 48,000 more Atlantic salmon escaping into the marine environment.
Meanwhile, very little in the way of penalties or fines are levied against the offending companies. For instance, the most recent Annual Inspection Report on Marine Finfish Aquaculture Sites (2008) issued by BCMAL shows only one violation for “failure to report a possible escape” with a fine of $173.8
With escapes on the rise in recent years, incomplete data on the full extent of escapes and minimal repercussions for escape events, it’s clear that BC’s salmon farming regulations are not adequate. These lax regulations are an example of how the government continues to enable salmon farming companies to externalize the costs of a dirty, unsustainable industry onto the environment and people of British Columbia.
Chile Takes a Stand on Weak Regulations
Due to previously weak regulations, it is estimated that between 9 and 18.6 million Atlantic farmed salmon escaped into Pacific waters off Chile since the industry began operations in the 1980s.
Escapes have been so chronic that Chile’s entire salmon sports fishing industry is based entirely on escaped farmed salmon! Because of this, there is a common misconception that the Chilean salmon farming industry’s recent bout with Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) is a threat to wild salmon in the area, but this is false as Chile has no indigenous wild salmon.
In early 2010, the Chilean congress passed legislation criminalizing farmed salmon escapes. Heavy fines and even prison sentences can now be levied against violators. This reform is the first of its kind in a salmon farming region and is a step forward in terms of encouraging sustainable aquaculture practices in Chile.
The Solution to Escapes?
The risk of farmed Atlantic salmon escaping into BC waters, spreading disease and harming indigenous Pacific wild salmon populations can be reduced or completely eliminated using closed system salmon farming technology. Find out more about closed system aquaculture.
Volpe, J. (2001). Super Un-Natural. David Suzuki Foundation. (pdf)
Eva B. Thorstad, Ian A. Fleming, Philip McGinnity, Doris Soto, Vidar Wennevik & Fred Whoriskey (January 2008). Incidence and Impacts of Escaped Farmed Atlantic Salmon in Nature, Technical Report to the Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue. World Wildlife Federation.
1 BC Seafood Industry Year in Review (2006) BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands.
2 Eva B. Thorstad, Ian A. Fleming, Philip McGinnity, Doris Soto, Vidar Wennevik & Fred Whoriskey (January 2008). Incidence and Impacts of Escaped Farmed Atlantic Salmon in Nature, Technical Report to the Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue. World Wildlife Federation, p.5.
3 Volpe, J.P., Taylor, E.B., Rimmer, D.W. & Glickman, B.W. (2000). Evidence of natural reproduction of aquaculture-escaped Atlantic salmon in a coastal British Columbia river. Conservation Biology 14: 899-903.
6 Alverson and Ruggerone 1997