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As autumn sets in in Atlantic Canada, Atlantic salmon in eastern Canadian rivers are setting themselves up for spawning: the females resting, the males competing for the chance to mate.
But ahead of this year’s fall spawning, scientists found a troubling presence in a river off the Bay of Fundy.
In early August, staff with the Atlantic Salmon Federation began detecting escaped aquaculture salmon at a fishway on the Magaguadavic River in southwest New Brunswick — a significant concern in the region, since farmed salmon can mate with wild fish, threatening the health of populations.
“It has very serious consequences, especially at this time of year,” says Jonathan Carr, vice-president of research and environment for the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
As of Oct. 11, the number of escaped salmon detected at the Magaguadavic fishway stood at 63. In a region where wild populations of Atlantic salmon are clinging to survival, scientists say even small escapes can pose a threat.
But advocates say the province has yet to respond to the incident, and that it highlights the weaknesses in provincial and federal oversight of an industry that may be putting local endangered populations of wild salmon closer to the brink.
“It just seems to keep happening,” says Matt Abbott, with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. “And it doesn’t ever seem to trigger the next step of government finding a way to rein this in.”
On Aug. 1, the first escapee arrived at the Magaguadavic fishway, a short drive from the Maine-New Brunswick border, where the Atlantic Salmon Federation has been monitoring since 1992.
As salmon pass through the fishway, they’re intercepted by federation staff, who remove the fish and collect genetic and other biological information, before the carcasses are sent to the freezer to await further study.
Even at a glance, farmed fish are easy to identify, Carr says; they’re larger than wild salmon, and have characteristics associated with growing in cages, like ragged, eroded fins. Though there have been no wild salmon in the river for decades — a decline Carr blames in part on interbreeding — the federation has continued monitoring here, as a window into what’s happening in salmon-bearing rivers across the region.
The federation says it’s the only group monitoring escapes in this part of southwest New Brunswick, the centre of aquaculture in the province; Fisheries and Oceans Canada conducts monitoring at the Mactaquac biodiversity facility near Fredericton. The province did not offer any details about its own monitoring activities.
What the federation’s monitoring on the Magaguadavic River showed this year was a stream of escapees, peaking in late August and early September.
Three weeks after escapes were first detected by the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd., the salmon farming subsidiary of Cooke Aquaculture, reported to the province that three of their pens in the Bay of Fundy were breached due to damage from seals on Aug. 24. This breach would account for the fish picked up in late August and early September, but leaves the source of the earlier escapees unknown.
The other aquaculture company operating in the Bay of Fundy, Mowi, reported that it had not discovered a breach, when contacted by the federation.
In an emailed statement provided in response to an interview request, Joel Richardson, Cooke’s vice-president of public relations, said as required by regulations, the company provided its report to New Brunswick’s Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries on Aug. 25. Richardson said the company also voluntarily shared the report with the Atlantic Salmon Federation, after the federation contacted Richardson on Sept. 1 to inform him of escapees at the fishway — since neither the company or department had notified the federation that the escapes had already been reported.
But beyond that report — which the province has not made public, and would not confirm to The Narwhal — advocates say no action has been taken.
“That escape is reported, it goes to the registrar of New Brunswick aquaculture … and nothing else happens,” says Neville Crabbe, executive director of communications with the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “It’s intentionally obtuse and secretive.”
New Brunswick’s Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries did not respond to questions about when it received the report of an escape, how many escapees were reported or whether there are sanctions for the company. It also did not respond to a question about recapture activities by the department or the company — recapture plans are not required, but must be approved by Fisheries and Oceans Canada when they are made. The federation said it’s not aware of any industry recapture efforts in this case.
Richardson did not respond to a question about the number of escapees it had reported, but said the company took “corrective actions” after the breach. He did not offer details about what those correction actions were.
On Nova Scotia’s side of the Bay of Fundy, where aquaculture escapes have happened in the past, companies are required to report breaches; a spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture said the department also reviews farm inventory levels to determine the extent of breaches.
Escapes are a particular concern in the region because of the precarious state of the wild populations, including the Inner Bay of Fundy salmon, which have been classed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act since 2003, and Outer Bay of Fundy salmon, which the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessed as endangered in 2010. The population of Inner Bay of Fundy salmon has declined by 95 per cent since the 1980s.
Data gathered by Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists and others shows that there’s been hybridization and introgression — meaning genetic mixing in the population — between escapees and wild salmon in the Bay of Fundy for decades.
In New Brunswick, all aquaculture salmon are bred from a strain that originates in the Wolastoq or Saint John River (though Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists have detected hybridization in the Bay of Fundy with farmed salmon of European origin, despite the fact nonsterile European salmon have never been approved in Canada).
Even with a local strain, the intermingling of salmon adapted to rivers over thousands of years with domesticated fish poses a threat, though the exact relationship with population decline is complex. “When they integrate with wild populations, the offspring don’t do as well. So you get an immediate hit to the numbers,” Ian Bradbury, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in an interview (in which he was speaking as a scientist, not as a representative of the federal department).
In addition to producing offspring that simply don’t survive in the short-term, there are also long-term consequences, as future generations become less adapted to the wild environment — and less resilient to climate change and other stressors. “We’re really compromising the population both in terms of numbers, and in terms of their evolutionary capacity to survive.”
This can be true even when the number of escapees is low, as small populations lack a buffer against the impact of hybridization.
Joel Richardson, of Cooke Aquaculture, called the idea that farmed salmon are a high-level threat to wild counterparts “disinformation” and said there are many threats to wild salmon including growing seal populations, commercial fishing on migratory routes and dams.
Susan Farquharson, CEO of the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association, an industry advocacy group, says escapes are rare compared to the past, and that farms are required to abide by New Brunswick’s Code of Containment, which includes guidelines for mooring systems and net structures, as well as reporting requirements. The code requires companies to do surface inspections weekly and monthly subsurface inspections, and use divers and remotely operated vehicles to inspect damage once a tear is suspected.
“No farmer wants to lose a fish, so they’re always closely monitoring,” Farquharson says. Once a breach has been reported, she says it’s up to regulators to carry on the process, as well as the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
But the federation said the work of monitoring and recapture shouldn’t be left to a non-government organization.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has responsibility for the protection of wild fish, but Crabbe says the department is failing to protect salmon from the threat posed by aquaculture.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation has called on the federal department to perform an audit of the industry, so the government can trace fish back to the site from which they escaped.
Fisheries and Oceans is working on a quick, cost-effective genetic tool to identify escapees in the Maritimes region, though it wouldn’t necessarily trace them back to a specific farm.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada didn’t answer a question on auditing the aquaculture industry, but said in an emailed statement that they are aware of reports of recent escapes. The department “takes the conservation of wild Atlantic salmon and their natural environment seriously,” the statement continued.
The statement also said the department convened a national advisory meeting this past summer on the risks interactions with farmed salmon pose to wild salmon populations, though it said the containment and prevention escapes are a provincial responsibility in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and referred questions about details of the recent escape to the provincial government.
Other jurisdictions where aquaculture escapes are an issue offer an example of how they can be managed to help protect wild species. In Norway, where there’s an extensive publically funded monitoring program, and where the aquaculture industry is responsible for financing mitigation measures in rivers, snorkellers travel rivers documenting and removing farmed salmon.
But in Canada such measures are not required of industry, and there is no comprehensive monitoring program in the Atlantic region to detect escapes.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada told The Narwhal it was considering some mitigation measures to contain breaches. The federal department said these would include options for river monitoring and the recapture of fish escaping from farms. The department added that any proposed options to monitor or recapture fish would consider the potential impacts on wild fish and fish habitat.
In the meantime, advocates say rapid reporting and containment of escapes would reduce their impact on wild populations — but provincial and federal government responses are failing to match that urgency.
“That’s the big issue here,” Carr says. “Nothing is being done.”
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