Wild Fish Conservancy study suggests yes
SEATTLE, Washington––Are salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest at risk from a crippling disease spread by estimated 162,000 hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon who on August 20, 2017 made a jailbreak from a ruptured sea pen at Cypress Island in Puget Sound?
If so, will further losses to the already overfished wild salmon population harm orca whales, grizzly bears, and the multitude of other wildlife for whom salmon are dietary staples?
Potentially infected salmon were within days found more than 150 miles from Cypress Island, not only within Puget Sound and other parts of the Salish Sea, but also in spawning estuaries on the Pacific Ocean side of the Olympic peninsula.
All of salmon sample were infected
The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife does not see a salmon disease crisis looming, let alone ripple effects hitting species up and down the food chain, but the Wild Fish Conservancy has suggested otherwise.
The Wild Fish Conservancy on February 15, 2018 released test data which suggests the entire escaped Atlantic salmon population may have been carriers of a Norwegian strain of piscine orthoreovirus, a viral infection which “can cause heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, and affects a salmon’s ability to compete and survive in the wild,” summarized Greg Copeland and Allison Sundell for KING 5 News on February 19, 2018.
“Heart and skeletal muscle inflammatory disease has caused up to 20% mortality in Norwegian net pens,” says Wild Fish Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee.
“An independent lab at the University of Prince Edward Island,” in eastern Canada, “found all 19 salmon donated from different sources were infected with piscine orthoreovirus,” Copeland and Sundell recounted.
“Safe” claim was based on smaller sample
“Researchers tested heart, gill, and kidney samples from fish who were caught in the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” which forms the Puget Sound boundary between the U.S. and Canada and the United States, “near Cypress Island, and 50 miles up the Skagit River,” the nearest major salmon spawning tributary to Cypress Island.
“Wild Fish Conservancy speculated that the sampling is cause to believe that all the escaped fish are most likely infected with Piscine orthoreovirus,” said Copeland and Sundell.
Earlier, on January 30, 2018, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife in a 120-page report on the great Atlantic salmon escape claimed on page 98 that when it tested the remains of “more than 15” of the salmon who were recovered, “No endemic, bacterial, viral, or parasitic pathogens were detected,” from which the Washington DFW biologists concluded that “The escaped population was healthy at the time of release.”
“Anorexia & stress”
On the next page, Washington DFW biologists wrote that “The fish became susceptible to bacterial infection following anorexia and stress.”
Summarized Copeland and Sundell, “In other words, DFW says the fish were not infected when they left the pen, but got sick because they couldn’t make it in the wild.”
Whatever the case, the escaped Atlantic salmon from the Cypress Island sea pens did not introduce piscine orthoreovirus to the region––but fish farming might have.
According to Fisheries & Oceans Canada, piscine orthoreovirus is known to be present in Norway, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Chile, and both the Atlantic and Pacific coats of the U.S. and Canada, all of which host salmon farming in sea pens.
Piscine orthoreovirus “was first detected in 2011 on the west coast through tests on farmed Chinook salmon,” the Fisheries & Oceans Canada web page on the disease continues.
Nearly 5% of salmon, trout, & steelhead already infected
Since then, piscine orthoreovirus has been detected in at least seven species of wild salmon, trout, and steelhead, ranging from the Washington coast north to Alaska, and in 4.6% of salmon, trout, and steelhead samples taken from Puget Sound.
The Wild Fish Conservancy has asked regulatory agencies to “Stop all restocking of Atlantic salmon net pens until thorough industry-independent testing has proven the Atlantic salmon hatchery is not planting piscine orthoreovirus-infected fish; immediately test all Atlantic salmon net pens in Puget Sound for piscine orthoreovirus; remove all piscine orthoreovirus -infected Atlantic salmon from Puget Sound net pens; and immediately disinfect facilities showing any trace of piscine orthoreovirus.”
The Wild Fish Conservancy is pursuing related litigation.
Company fined & lost lease
Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, owner of the Cypress Island salmon pens and eight other salmon farms around Puget Sound, was fined $332,000 by the Washington state Department of Ecology for water quality violations in connecton with the great escape.
Cooke Aquaculture also, in December 2017, lost its lease to operate salmon pens on the east side of the Ediz Hook, near Port Angeles on the south side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“The farm, operated by a series of owners since 1984, currently holds nearly 700,000 Atlantic salmon,” wrote Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda V. Mapes. “At issue are risks to the public and the environment.
“The farm, which comprises one large pen with 14 cages and a smaller pen with six cages, is outside the boundaries of its lease with the department and causing a navigation hazard,” according to Washington state commissioner of public lands Hilary Franz, “who terminated Cooke’s lease,” Mapes continued.
Anchor lines missing or damaged
“The farm also is polluting the water with fragments of Styrofoam crumbling off its floats. Finally, anchor lines for the farm are missing or damaged, posing a risk of collapse and fish escape — as happened last summer at Cypress Island, Franz said.”
Icicle Seafoods, the previous owner of the Port Angeles salmon farm, had in October 2016 “agreed to ensure that its net pens were fully within the boundaries by October 2016,” Mapes reported, adding that “The lease termination came in the same week that the Washington Department of Ecology fined Cooke $8,000 for repeated violations of its permits for polluting the water at another of its farms, in Rich Passage at the south end of Bainbridge Island.”
Both the Rich Passage facility and another Cooke salmon farm, at Hope Island, near the northern end of the Saratoga Passage, subsequently flunked safety inspections.
“At the Fort Ward facility in Rich Passage,” Mapes wrote, “inspectors found chain links on an anchor line had lost up to 75% of holding capacity because of corrosion.”
Trouble near home, too
Founded in 1985 at Kelly’s Cove, New Brunswick, Canada, now headquartered at Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, with eight subsidiary companies worldwide, including in Uruguay and Chile, Cooke Aquaculture ran into trouble much closer to home in January 2018.
Reported Allison Devereaux of CBC News on January 26, “Cooke Aquaculture removed an unspecified number of dead salmon from its aquaculture site at Blue Island, Nova Scotia, saying a harsh winter storm earlier this month killed the fish. Critics of the aquaculture operation, located between Lockeport and Shelburne, raised concerns about damaged equipment washing up on shore near Jordan Bay.”
Cooke Aquaculture vice president Joel Richardson said the deaths involved only “a small percentage” of the fish at the site, according to Devereaux.
Responded Nova Scotia fisheries minister Keith Colwell, “There’s more mortalities than we thought would possibly be.”
Can Russian sturgeon escape from the pen?
Related issues involving other companies are simmering in Louisiana, Australia, and Scotland.
Ledet’s Louisiana Seafood LLC, founded by a family long involved in the Louisiana fishing and shrimping industry, has petitioned the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, seeking permission to import sterlet sturgeon to be farmed for caviar at a 15,000 square-foot indoor facility in Natchitoches Parish.
Native to the Azov basin, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea, sterlet are the fastest-maturing and smallest of the ancient sturgeon family, growing to only slightly more than a foot long. Ledet’s Louisiana Seafood LLC.
“A convict on death row at Angola,” the Louisiana state penitentiary, has a better chance of escaping than a fish has of escaping this facility,” insisted Ledet’s Louisiana Seafood attorney Michael St. Martin to Steve Hardy of the Baton Rouge Advocate in January 2018.
But convicts at Angola have escaped occasionally, though none are known to have remained at large for long since 1955.
Escaped sterlet sturgeon, opponents of the Ledet’s plan argue, might take over critical habitat for the endangered native pallid sturgeon and the officially threatened Gulf of Mexico sturgeon.
“Sturgeon are living fossils,” recently explained New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Tristan Baurick. They swam the Earth’s waterways when dinosaurs roamed, some 200 million years ago. They’re slow-growing, but they can grow quite big, with some species reaching 20 feet in length.”
Between habitat loss and caviar poaching, Baurick summarized, the pallid sturgeon, which can live as long as 100 years, “has all but disappeared from the the lower Mississippi River basin.”
Sturgeon compared to nuclear waste
The Gulf sturgeon, which spawns in Louisiana waters, lost considerable habitat to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform fire and leakage.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries has proposed safety requirements for farming starlet sturgeon comparable to those required for moving and storing nuclear waste, including “a $1 million bond from each sturgeon farm to help the state defray the costs of responding to any fish escapes,” Baurick wrote.
Also, Baurick reported, “a department enforcement officer or other state-approved agent would need to escort any shipments of live sterlet sturgeon within Louisiana. Travel would be limited to approved routes that avoid hazards that could lead to accidental releases.”
The recommended precautions were strengthened coincidental with the escape of about 20,000 yellowtail kingfish, an exceptionally large variety of mackerel, from sea pens off Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia, built as a joint venture of the New South Wales government and Huon Aquaculture, based in the island Australian state of Tasmania.
“The future of the project, which is 18 months into a five-year research trial, is under a cloud,” reported Donna Page of the Newcastle Herald, “following the loss of almost half its stock with a retail value of more than $2 million.”
The Huon Aquaculture sea pens were supposedly built to withstand 50-foot waves, but were damaged by waves of 36 feet in height or less.
A New South Wales Department of Primary Industries spokesperson told Page that the 17,000 escaped kingfish were “of the same genetic stock as wild populations,” and “health checked on a routine basis, so they are not considered a biosecurity risk,” but project critics were skeptical.
This was “the second large-scale fish farm operation in Port Stephens to suffer huge stock losses due to storm damage,” Page noted.
Salmon “classed as toxic hazardous waste”
In Scotland, Save Our Seals Fund chief executive and longtime aquaculture industry critic John Robins, who also heads Animal Concern Scotland, renewed decades of appeals to the Scottish government “to impose a moratorium on the planned massive expansion of the salmon farming industry in Scotland,” Robins emailed to ANIMALS 24-7, after an October 2017 BBC investigation “revealed that over 10 million salmon die from disease, lice infestation and mishandling on Scottish fish farms each year.”
Many of the dead fish “are classed as toxic hazardous waste and have to be transported hundreds of miles by road for disposal by specialists,” Robins pointed out. “ TV footage showed leakage from one of these vehicles, which would have crossed numerous salmon rivers on the long journey to be disposed of.”
RSPCA defends shooting seals
The Royal SPCA of Great Britain has somewhat surprisingly opposed Robins’ campaign from inception, and in January 2017 “defended a decision to continue to sanction the killing of seals in fish farms in updated welfare standards,” reported Martin Williams of the Sunday Herald.
“Despite protests,” Williams explained, “the RSPCA has retained the stipulation in its welfare standards for farmed Scottish salmon that the shooting of seals can be carried out,” albeit only as a “last resort.”
“For the first time,” added Williams, “the RSPCA has stipulated that the last resort will be reached when non-lethal actions have been carried out in full, including use of fully working Acoustic Deterrent Devices and predator nets, seal curtains or screens ‘where it is appropriate to do so.’”
Scottish salmon farms shot an average of 267 seals per year between 2010 and 2016, according to the most recent available data.