Lousy Salmon

‘It could be very damaging’: feds worried about fallout of Atlantic salmon farm risk report

Internal government emails about a report on threats to wild fish reveal tensions between protecting salmon and protecting aquaculture industry interests

Months before releasing a stark scientific assessment of the impact of fish farms on Atlantic salmon, federal officials grappled with how they would share the conclusions with industry and provincial regulators, according to internal correspondence obtained by The Narwhal.

The March 2024 report was the first to formally assess the threat of interactions between wild salmon and escapees from the fish farms that dot the coastline in Atlantic Canada.

According to internal correspondence, Fisheries and Oceans Canada originally aimed to publish the science advisory report in December 2023, following a June 2023 national review meeting of federal scientists, foreign government scientists and non-governmental organizations. There was no indication of the reason for the delay in the documents, but advocates say it is not unusual. 

The assessment summarizes scientific evidence of ongoing risks of interbreeding between farmed and wild salmon populations, as provincial and federal regulators contemplate an expansion of aquaculture in Atlantic Canada. But a few months before its release, senior officials with Fisheries and Oceans noted the task ahead of engaging with industry and the provinces about the findings.

A group of protesters hold signs. Some read, "no more factory fish farms," "consultation means listening not telling," and "fish farms kill nature."
Protesters demonstrated in Halifax after Cooke Aquaculture received approval in 2011 to expand its fish farm operations in St. Mary’s Bay, off the coast of Newfoundland. Photo: Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press

“There is a hard conversation in here about management decisions for the population of salmon as a whole,” the regional manager, aquaculture management wrote in an October 2023 email to the regional director, released through access to information legislation.

A month later, the regional director of aquatic ecosystems, Newfoundland and Labrador region, wrote to the regional director for science in that region to ask about plans for the assessment’s publication. “I am anxious to ensure that there is sufficient lead to ensure engagement with key partners, in advance of publication, particularly the provincial government and industry association,” she wrote. “We have invested considerable time to strengthen dialogue and relations, and if we do not provide sufficient time and space to engage appropriately in advance, it could be very damaging. Done well, it could provide a valuable opportunity to build trust, dialogue and identify common ground.”

The warnings in the emails highlight internal divisions within the federal department, where some see their role as protecting wild fish, and others have devoted their careers to developing the aquaculture industry, according to an advocacy group that promotes the restoration and conservation of Atlantic salmon.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that there would be some trepidation from those quarters of the department,” Neville Crabbe, executive director of communications at the Atlantic Salmon Federation, told The Narwhal in an interview.

The internal emails suggest there was concern over the potential impacts of the report, despite the fact the assessment did not take into account one area of crossbreeding that could further exacerbate the poor state of wild salmon: the use of foreign strains in aquaculture. Though it was out of the scope of this specific assessment, documents reviewed by The Narwhal show federal officials have grown increasingly concerned with this risk in recent years.

Nonetheless, Crabbe says he’s “very confident that what’s contained in that risk assessment will weigh heavily on future decisions about expansion.”

“I think the positive, if there is one, is that they did conduct a risk assessment, and they did publish it,” Crabbe added.

When what happens on the salmon farm doesn’t stay on the salmon farm

While farmed and wild salmon in Atlantic Canada are the same species, they’re separated by a gulf of domestication. 

Farmed salmon — which primarily come from a strain that originates in the Wolastoq or Saint John River — have been bred to grow faster, and are more aggressive. When these fish interbreed with the region’s wild salmon, their offspring are less likely to survive and are less able to adapt to climate change or other pressures.

The new risk assessment, which examined the likelihood of interbreeding and the consequences for wild populations, suggests a high risk for salmon in areas where there’s a concentration of salmon farms, including in the Bay of Fundy in southeastern New Brunswick and along Newfoundland’s southwest coast.

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“Where we have lots of salmon in cages, that’s where we have elevated risk of these sorts of interactions,” says Ian Bradbury, research scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and one of the authors of the risk assessment (speaking as a scientist, not as a representative of the department).

In a response to questions about industry reaction to the risk assessment, Jamie Baker, executive director of the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association, said in an email that it is well established that salmon populations have been declining since before salmon farming started. He said salmon producers have responded to the potential risk to wild fish “by practically eliminating fish escapes through investments in technologies and training that effectively and safely contain their salmon.”

But risks go beyond escapees from domestic strains of salmon. 

Introduction of European genes put Atlantic salmon at greater risk

Fisheries and Oceans’ science advisory report did not explicitly consider the additional impact of farmed fish that originate in Europe, but Bradbury says European genes elevate the risk. 

European Atlantic salmon have evolved separately from North American Atlantic salmon for thousands of years, producing genetic differences associated with processes like immunity or navigation. 

Fertile European salmon are not authorized for use in aquaculture in Atlantic Canada and have never been approved. Yet European genes have been detected in wild and farmed populations in the Atlantic for years. Internal documents suggest the presence of these genes has sparked suspicion.

A 2013 Fisheries and Oceans Canada report released through access to information legislation mentions requests from two aquaculture companies to import “alternative Atlantic salmon bloodlines that could potentially increase Canadian aquaculture industry competitiveness.” These were Norwegian-origin salmon, which documents noted were sought for their improved performance over domestic fish. 

Those requests were denied. 

Disected female fish, displaying organs and roe
A farmed female salmon full of roe — or eggs — was intercepted at the Magaguadavic River fishway in New Brunswick. Aquaculture escapees can often be identified on sight by their fins, frayed from rubbing against enclosures, and their larger size. Photo: Cailey Fernie / Atlantic Salmon Federation

Yet in response to a 2021 analysis by Fisheries and Oceans Canada that showed the presence of European genes in both aquaculture salmon and in wild fish, a memo for the minister noted that “results suggest either the recent importation or the maintenance of European-origin salmon by the aquaculture industry.”

Department scientists’ further analysis of farmed salmon and escapees in Newfoundland found European genetic ancestry as high as 40 per cent; in one instance, scientists captured two fish with 100 per cent European ancestry as part of a recovery effort following an escape event.

While the risk of European genetics are not mentioned in the published risk assessment, a slide in a 2023 draft internal presentation on the assessment stated that “some salmon farmed in Atlantic Canada have been significantly and continuously interbred with European salmon,” with “implications for non-compliance by the industry.” 

European ancestry has also been found in recent escapees, including fish intercepted at the Magaguadavic fishway, near the Maine-New Brunswick border. In late 2023, 63 escapees were detected at the fishway.

Samples of those fish have been tested at Bradbury’s lab in Halifax. Results indicate continued and potentially elevated presence of European genes, compared to what scientists have observed previously, Bradbury said.

As officials struggle to respond to the impacts of existing farms and interbreeding, they also face industry attempts to bring new sources of genetic material to the region. 

Fish farm escape puts Bay of Fundy wild salmon in jeopardy

In 2023, Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials circulated an email on a “significant” request from Cooke Aquaculture, one of the major aquaculture companies in the region. To make up for a shortfall of eight million domestic-origin eggs, the company proposed importing sterile Norwegian-strain eggs (also known as triploid eggs), as well as fertile eggs from Tasmania, with an eye toward incorporating the latter into long-term production. 

Federal scientists’ advice was that the potential importation of Tasmanian eggs (from a strain believed to originate in a river in Nova Scotia, but which has been domesticated in Tasmania for decades) was “directly analogous” to past requests for fertile European eggs, where scientists had identified a risk to wild populations and recommended against the introduction.

Documents describe Cooke’s intention to place salmon born of those Tasmanian eggs in pens in Spring 2024.

When contacted by The Narwhal to ask whether this request had been approved, and for a response to the risk assessment, Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson Joel Richardson declined to comment.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not respond to a question about whether or not the request for Tasmanian eggs had been approved. In a statement, a spokesperson said the department works with other federal departments and federal regulators on decisions of mutual interest, such as the importation of salmon eggs, and that in 2023, a licence was issued to Cooke Aquaculture for triploid European-origin eggs for anticipated use in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. 

Managing the risk to Atlantic wild salmon after fish farm assessment

Regardless of the origin of farmed fish, scientists and advocates say the risk assessment highlights the need for additional mitigation measures to protect the genetics of wild populations. This could include improvements to net pen systems, and requirements for industry to use sterile eggs.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists have also developed a test to detect European ancestry, which has been available for more than a year.

In an emailed statement, Fisheries and Oceans said the report provides an improved understanding of the risks of interbreeding between wild and farmed salmon, which will help inform advice to provinces considering new or expanded aquaculture sites.

The statement also said the Atlantic provinces are responsible for overseeing the containment of farmed salmon and preventing escapes, and referred those questions to provincial governments.

When asked for comment on the apparent trepidation about the release of the risk assessment reflected in internal emails, the department provided a statement reading that it “fully respects the authority of Atlantic provinces in their management of aquaculture.” 

In the meantime, Crabbe says the growing evidence of the effects of interbreeding underscores the risk of industry expansion, including on Nova Scotia’s south shore and on southern Newfoundland, where two companies are planning to add millions of salmon to sites along a mostly undeveloped stretch of coastline. 

“We frequently hear from provincial leaders, even the federal minister, that this industry and wild fish can coexist,” says Crabbe. “This assessment is a heavy weight on the already tilted scale that says they cannot.”

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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