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Escaped farmed salmon causing concern

 One of the farmed salmon from an aquaculture site somewhere in Fortune Bay that recently turned up in the Garnish River.  Submitted photo

Clayton Hunt – The Coaster, NFLD – May 29, 2013

The Garnish River has some new salmon this year thanks to escaped farmed fish from an aquaculture site in the Fortune Bay area.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officials confirmed this recently, but said that they are no indicators to cause concern about spreading infection or disease to the wild population of fish in the river.

Don Hutchens, the president of the Salmonid Council of Newfoundland said that the council is concerned about farmed salmon showing up in the Garnish River for several reasons.

Hutchens said, “We’re concerned that the farmed salmon will interbreed with fish which would result in a new weakened generic type of fish. The escaped fish may have come from an area that had some serious farmed fish health issues recently and this may spread disease to wild populations.

“The fish are also turning up in the river at a time when smolt were going out. So, if these are fish feeding on smolt going out to sea from the Garnish River it will have an effect on future populations in the river.”

Hutchens said that as far as the Salmonid Council is concerned DFO officials are downplaying the issue, as they had not received any reports of escaped fish from aquaculture sites in recent months.

“The DFO says that there have been no significant escapes in recent months. However, there have been ‘trickle’ escapes which they say contain small numbers of fish. The DFO has no definition of the word ‘trickle’ which could mean dozens of fish escaping at a time. However, if dozens or hundreds of fish are escaping at a time then that can add up to a lot of fish escaping from grow-out sites. “We feel that if local people did not report these fish in the Garnish River then DFO would have swept this issue under the rug, and we would have not heard about it all. This leads us to wonder how many escaped fish may be in other salmon rivers in the area,” Hutchens said.

Geoff Perry, the DFO Director of Aquaculture Management in Newfoundland and Labrador, said that DFO is taking the escaped fish situation very seriously and is certainly not downplaying the issue.

Perry talked about some of the concerns about escaped fish expressed by Mr. Hutchens.

Perry said, “We’re monitoring the situation in the river very closely. We’ve taken 25 fish from the river, we’ve collected biological samples and we’re doing pathogen screenings and genetic analysis to determine the specific source of these fish.”

With respect to the concern of interbreeding, Perry said that it’s very unlikely that this will happen in Newfoundland rivers between wild and farmed salmon.

He said, “Wild salmon and wild fish can interbreed. However, we haven’t found any evidence of this in this province. For interbreeding to occur the escaped fish have to survive, they have to mature and find their way to a river’s spawning grounds. To date, we haven’t seen any evidence of this in the Garnish River”.

Apparently, when farmed fish do enter a river they generally stay close to the mouth of the river and don’t reach a river’s spawning grounds which are usually much further upstream.

According to Perry, there have been a few cases reported in Norwegian rivers where wild salmon have interbred with farmed fish. However, one must realize that Norway produces about 1 million tonnes of farmed fish a year compared to the approximate 15,000 tonnes produced in Newfoundland.

Cyr Couturier, the executive Director of the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association (NAIA) also addressed some of the concerns about the escaped salmon by the Salmonid Council.  Couturier said, “In this particular case, according to DFO, the numbers of escaped fish seem to be very small, they generally appear to be healthy and they are not reproductive at this stage which makes it unlikely they are going to have an impact on the wild population.

“While farmed salmon are genetically identical to their wild counterparts they are domesticated fish so they don’t survive too long in nature outside their enclosed pens. Being domesticated also means these fish are not afraid of predators and many of them will be eaten before having any chance of reaching sexual maturity.

For farmed fish to interbreed, escaped fish have to survive, they have to be reproductive and they have to find a mate, something which they are not very good at.”

Preventing More Escapes in the Future

Perry said that the Code of Containment for the aquaculture industry, which was introduced in 1999 by DFO, the provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA) and the industry, has significantly reduced the number of escaped salmon since that time.

Perry said. “Approximately 1,500 fish have escaped from grow-out sites since 1999 when the Code of Containment brought in tough standards for nets, site designs, equipment and handling practices which are all aimed at minimizing escapes. The code has lessened the severity and frequency of escapes especially when you realize that there are about 13 million fish in active farm sites in the province.

“However, we will continue to focus on further prevention of escapes – to identify weaknesses and have an appropriate set of measures in place to recapture fish.”

Couturier said that the NAIA is also very concerned about the issue of escaped fish turning up in Garnish River.

Couturier said, “We will do everything we can to find out which grow-out site these fish came from so we can prevent this from happening again. Our efforts are always to focus on improving the Code of Containment. For example, we may need to have better predator nets at cage sites in the future. Our industry does regular testing on a daily basis of nets and structures and weekly dives, and we do extra surveys after storms to make sure containment has not been breached.

“We don’t like this any more than the Salmonid Council does and will work diligently to address this issue moving forward.”