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Salmon versus salmon by Marie Burcham

Posted by: | April 6, 2011 Comments Off on Salmon versus salmon by Marie Burcham |

The market for salmon in the U.S. and around the world is increasing despite drastic declines in run numbers. The economic value of wild Pacific salmon alone is enormous, but as noted in NOAA’s 2009 report to Congress “…the combined value of the West Coast (California, Oregon, and Washington) recreational and commercial ocean fisheries dropped 46 percent in 2007 to about $39 million, from the 2002–2006 annual average of $71 million.”

Aquaculture operations take a species of salmon that does well in crowded conditions – usually Atlantic salmon – and puts them in large stationary nets in the ocean. The fish are then fed until they reach a harvestable size, allowing producers to have a ready supply of easily-caught fish to meet market demand year-round. Despite the economic advantages, this ocean aquaculture presents some problems for the environment and local salmon populations. For one, these “fish farms” cause significant water pollution because of the concentration of fish waste and the addition of chemicals like antibiotics into the ocean. Farmed fish are also more susceptible to disease and parasites, which then easily spread to the wild populations if they come into contact with each other.  Despite the intention to prevent fish escaping, some inevitably escape and intermingle with wild fish. Possible interbreeding between the two physically similar groups will change the genetics and potentially the fitness of already-threatened wild salmon. Additionally, although farmed fish are generally considered less genetically “fit” for surviving in the wild, the reality is that they often have a competitive advantage over wild populations because their growth rate has been accelerated artificially to the point that they compete for food and nesting sites.

Of course, many of the Pacific salmon populations in the United States are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which leads to interesting legal questions – these species are listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA, but they are being harmed by the aquaculture business. Since fish farms are private businesses, the consultation requirements under Section 7 do not apply, but the Section 9 prohibition against “takes” of listed species does apply to private citizens. A “take” is defined broadly to prohibit both killing and more indirect harm to a listed species; because Pacific salmon are being killed directly by parasites like sea lice, or harmed by the impacts of escapees from the net pens, it’s clear that fish farms are in violation of the ESA.

Since at least some of the deleterious impacts on Pacific salmon are well-proved, aquaculture operations are required to obtain an “incidental take permit” pursuant to regulations promulgated under Section 10 of the ESA. These incidental take permits will protect the business from liability when their otherwise lawful activity might accidently kill or otherwise “take” a listed species. To be approved for a permit the business must create habitat conservation plans (HCPs) pursuant to in Section 10(a) of the ESA. The primary purpose of an HCP is to discuss any potential effects of the proposed taking and to create a plan for how those effects will be minimized or mitigated. These plans and their permits are enforceable through the ESA controls, meaning the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the state, or even citizens through Section 11(g), can bring suit against a non-complying permit holder. Monitoring is also one of the requirements of HCPs, with the Services being allowed to delegate that task to the state or another agency as long as they report their findings regularly.

Unfortunately the current system of regulation on Pacific aquaculture is too lax. Despite the creation of HCPs, scientific evidence shows us that aquaculture operations are continuing to have a deleterious impact on wild salmon. The mandates of the ESA are intended to control this problem, but without interest in the harm caused by fish farming, the overburdened Services are unlikely to act against the industry. With the realities of today’s political climate, the best move towards change would be to bring suit under the ESA against states which permit operations in their coastal zone and monitor aquaculture pursuant to HCPs. States have broad authority over their coastal waters through the Coastal Zone Management Act even without the delegation of HCP monitoring to state agencies. Future pressure on states will hopefully lead to increased accountability among existing fish farms and more analysis stateside before new operations are permitted. Additionally, financial pressure on states could lead to their incentivizing the most environmentally sustainable technologies and operations.

The recent draft aquaculture policy speaks to the continuance of sustainable aquaculture, with NOAA defining “sustainable” including economic, social and environmental concerns. While this policy draft acknowledges the problems aquaculture causes wild fish, it does not go far enough in developing a definite plan for conservation of wild fisheries and management of aquaculture operations. Despite this, there are many ways that the salmon aquaculture industry could become more sustainable with respect to wild stock without destroying their economic viability. Studies show that the only way to stop disease and parasite spread with confidence is to make sure water isn’t shared between the farmed and wild fish. Management practices like stocking and culling the farmed fish frequently could also contribute. New technologies offer the most help – in particular, having closed containment pens would prevent the problem of water-sharing while containing localized pollution. There is concern among the industry that they will have increased costs if they have to deal directly with their fish waste because the closed pens will collect it, but there are sustainable options for that as well in fertilizer, fuel or food for other aquatic species. The Ocean Conservancy encourages one potentially lucrative solution to the pollution – farming deposit feeders like lobster, suspension feeders and seaweed in conjunction with the fish farms. Practices like this, along with simply locating production nets away from wild fish migration routes to decrease the possibility of disease and parasite passage to wild stock, will potentially keep the whole system healthy. Although genetically modified salmon are a heated topic, farming sterilized salmon and salmon that are unlikely to survive even a short time in the wild may be another solution.

Whatever route we choose in the future, states need to be held accountable for the choices they make when permitting aquaculture operations off their coasts. There are alternatives to current practices that would not destroy the industry, and further incentives to pursue new and better technologies will only help preserve threatened wild salmon as the ESA mandates.

under: Food, Natural Resources

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