Researchers for the Atlantic Salmon Federation have captured and removed 53 Atlantic salmon from a New Brunswick river after an estimated 1,000 of the farm-raised fish escaped from a Cooke Aquaculture facility near Deer Island in the Bay of Fundy.
Deer Island is just across the Maine-New Brunswick border.
According to an ASF press release, fish were released accidentally on Aug. 20 when a pipe broke while fish were being transferred from a net pen to a boat for sea lice treatment. Initial estimates by Cooke Aquaculture set the total of escapees at 2,500, but company representatives have since lowered that estimate to 1,000 fish.
And across the border in Maine, Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, said he was concerned about the escape.
“We know that fish do not recognize national boundaries. Escaped farmed salmon from Canada do pose a serious threat to endangered wild U.S. populations in our region — particularly in the Dennys River,” Shaw said. “Our network of volunteers have documented large numbers of escaped farm salmon there a number of times and we continue to monitor that river very closely. While the frequency of these incidents has improved, there is clearly a problem that remains to be addressed by the Canadians at both the governmental and corporate level where practices remain less than fail safe.”
Some of those fish began trying to enter the Magaguadavic River through a fishway at St. George, New Brunswick, which is less than 20 miles from the Maine border. As of Sept. 8, 53 of the aquaculture fish had been caught and euthanized, then sent to the ASF and Fisheries and Oceans Canada for sampling and further analysis.
The escape of aquaculture fish can be detrimental to wild fish they may encounter. In 2013, 91 escaped salmon were captured at the same dam. And in 2005, more than 50,000 fish were released from pens when vandals cut the nets.
Spawning between the farmed and wild fish has been documented in Bay of Fundy rivers after previous escapes. That can produce fish that are not adapted for their environment, and can contribute to population collapse, the ASF said. The Canadian DFO has declared the fish farming industry a marine threat of high concern to wild Atlantic salmon populations.
“Despite oversight from two levels of government, aquaculture companies in New Brunswick benefit from a significant loophole when it comes to escapes,” said Neville Crabbe, the ASF’s executive director of communications. “As long as the fish are contained, they are the responsibility of the corporation. In the wild, they are the responsibility of no one.”
Crabbe was frustrated by a less-than-transparent response to the escape by Cooke Aquaculture.
“While we appreciate a prompt response from Cooke to our inquiries, and the fact the company consented to the release of some information by provincial officials, this news was not shared widely with the public,” Crabbe said. “In general, silence and secrecy about escape events puts endangered Bay of Fundy wild Atlantic salmon at risk.”
Shaw said there’s a growing trend away from sea-based aquaculture pens.
“Alaska, Washington and recently Denmark have all outlawed and are phasing out open net pen ocean salmon farming,” Shaw said.
Among the concerns raised by escaped aquaculture fish, according to Shaw: a spread of disease and parasites, behavioral interference with wild fish during fall spawning, and the dilution of wild genes.
“All of these issues have been documented in places ranging from Ireland, Scotland and Norway, to Iceland, Atlantic Canada and U.S. to British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, Chile and Argentina,” Shaw said.
There are several Atlantic salmon rivers in Maine’s nearby Washington County that could also be at risk if the escaped fish swim there.