Thousands of farmed salmon escape in B.C., worry Alaskans

Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2000

A recent escape of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon in British Columbia has refueled Alaskas concerns about mixing non-native species with wild salmon.

Its not natural, said Ben Van Alen, salmon research supervisor for Southeast commercial fisheries in Alaska. So anything thats not natural is something we should be very suspicious of.

Alaska outlawed salmon farming in 1990 and the state opposes Canadas farms. Alaska biologists and fishermen are worried farmed salmon will breed with wild salmon and reduce local stocks ability to survive. They also fear farmed salmon will bring diseases to wild fish, or outcompete local stocks for space and food.

The state previously had scheduled a meeting in two weeks in Washington, D.C., with the Canadian federal government about fish farming. Alaska will raise the issue of escapes, said Dave Gaudet of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

We certainly are getting no assurances that their practices are getting any safer, he said.

An unknown number of mature Atlantic salmon, weighing 10 pounds or more, recently escaped from a fish farm near the north end of Vancouver Island, about 350 miles south of Alaska waters.

They were noticed in nearby Canadian commercial fishing nets early last week, but its not known when the fish escaped from a large circular net pen that holds up to 75,000 fish at Sargaunt Pass, east of Port McNeill.

Initial reports put the number at 50,000 fish, but an industry representative said it was perhaps half that and a closer estimate wont be known until Monday at least. The torn net has been repaired, and several thousand fish have been recovered by commercial fishermen, the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said.

About 286,000 farmed fish are known to have escaped from British Columbia farms between 1991 and 1999, Gaudet said.

But a lot of people think there are a lot of small amounts of escapes going on all the time, he added.

The farmed fish are kept part of their lives in net pens in the ocean until they reach marketable size. But sometimes those pens are torn by storms, seals and sea lions, or even vandals who oppose fish farming and fish escape.

The number of escaped fish has gone down as pens have been improved with stronger nets and sometimes a double-net system, said Anita Peterson of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.

Escapes are now about 0.3 percent of the fish produced, down from 3.7 percent in 1990, the B.C. government said. Meanwhile, production has risen from 22,000 tons dressed weight in 1995 to 47,000 tons last year.

The B.C. government announced stricter standards last year for preventing and responding to escapes, as conditions of licensing fish farms. It also is encouraging pilot projects with closed containers, rather than nets.

Peterson, who is also a commercial fisherman, said few escaped fish survive in the wild for very long because they dont know how to feed themselves. When escaped fish are caught, they have pebbles and sticks in their gullets, she said.

But some Atlantic salmon show up every year in Southeast waters, mostly near Ketchikan and Petersburg, and even as far north as Juneau, the state said. Fishermen turn in up to 100 a year, biologist Van Alen said. But many fishermen throw them back without reporting them. And the caught fish are just a fraction of whats out there.

The first documented recovery of an Atlantic salmon in an Alaska stream was in 1998 in Ward Creek near Ketchikan. They were reported in 48 B.C. rivers and streams in 1997, Fish and Game said.

Theres a lot of unanswered questions and very real risks involved, said Dave Bedford of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association. B.C. is exporting all of the risk and taking all of the benefit. That strikes me as a poor way to treat their neighbors.

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