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Salmon farms pose significant threat to salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, researchers find


The growing popularity of farm-raised salmon has plunged the commercial fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest into a state of crisis, according to a new report by Stanford University researchers.

Writing in the October issue of ENVIRONMENT magazine, the research team found that, since the late 1980s, worldwide production of farm salmon has increased fivefold, while the market share of wild-caught salmon from Alaska, British Columbia and Washington state has steadily declined.

"Farm salmon represents one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative segments of the global aquaculture industry," said Josh Eagle, director of the Stanford Fisheries Policy Project and co-author of the ENVIRONMENT report. "In 1980, commercial fisheries produced more than 99 percent of salmon consumed worldwide. Today, they catch less than 40 percent."

The impact has been particularly devastating in Alaska, where 10 percent of the workforce is employed in some aspect of the salmon fishing industry, noted Rosamond L. Naylor, the Julie Wrigley Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Environmental Science and Policy (CESP) and lead author of the report.

"Wild salmon capture historically has played an important economic role by providing employment and incomes to a vast number of Native American and non-native communities along the coast," Naylor said. However, Alaska’s share of the global salmon market declined from 40 to 50 percent in the early 1980s to less than 20 percent in 2000 - mainly because of competition from salmon farms in Chile, Norway, the United Kingdom and other countries, she said.

In response, the Alaska state government recently declared a state of emergency and offered commercial salmon fishers a series of financial relief programs. In British Columbia and Washington, low fish stocks and low prices have induced some boat owners to participate in vessel buy-back programs.

Commercial fishers from Juneau to Seattle are losing market share not only to overseas competitors but also to local farming operations. Salmon aquaculture was virtually nonexistent in the Pacific Northwest prior to 1985. But today, 70 percent of the salmon produced in British Columbia and Washington comes from salmon farms - 121 in British Columbia and nine in Washington.

Ecological threats

Salmon aquaculture is currently prohibited in Alaska, for economic and environmental reasons. Raised in pens built along the shore, farm salmon are particularly susceptible to diseases and parasites, such as sea lice, that can be lethal to fish. The report cited instances where lice, viruses and other pathogens have contaminated wild salmon stocks swimming nearby.

"A more insidious ecological risk to wild salmon comes from the escape of farm fish from netpen facilities," the authors wrote, noting that well over a million salmon have escaped from farms in Washington and British Columbia during the past decade. Most of the escapees were Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), which, although not indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, are the main species raised in West Coast fish farms.

"Escapees are capable of establishing and reproducing in the wild and competing with wild salmon populations for food and habitat," according to the authors, who noted that Atlantic salmon have been found in dozens of rivers and lakes throughout British Columbia and Alaska. The report also found that open netpen aquaculture can threaten other organisms by releasing untreated nutrients, chemicals and pharmaceuticals into the marine ecosystem. Such concerns led the government of British Columbia to establish a six-year moratorium on salmon farming in 1996. Strict regulations for waste disposal were finally introduced last year when the moratorium was lifted. Whether the regulations are successful in curbing pollution will depend on how rigorously they are enforced, the authors wrote.

Year-round demand

The authors pointed to several reasons why aquaculture producers have been able to outcompete commercial fishers - including technological advancements, a highly capitalized and consolidated corporate sector, cost-cutting measures and the ability to provide consumers with a consistently fresh product year-round. Commercial fisheries, on the other hand, tend to be relatively small operations that depend on seasonal harvests, which vary in size and quality from year to year.

According to the report, salmon farmers also have benefited from several globalization trends: rapid expansion of the seafood trade; overnight transport of fresh products around the world; and a strong market demand for homogenous, made-to-order products.

"Unfortunately, the globalized market structure and increasing international competition for salmon products often undermine local efforts to protect environmental quality and marine resources," Naylor explained. "Washington and British Columbia’s governing agencies - the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada and NOAA Fisheries - face the challenge that increased environmental regulation in one country may drive production to another country, and with free trade enforced by the World Trade Organization, the ’lowest common denominator’ often rules. NOAA and DFO both have joint mandates to promote aquaculture development and to protect ocean resources."

Industry overhaul

According to the report, the fishing sector is now on the verge of major restructuring - similar to the transformation that occurred in agriculture and rural communities in the lower 48 states. In Alaska, plans are currently on the table for new cooperative fishing programs and a restructuring of producer-processor relationships.

"The good news is that the aquaculture revolution is forcing more efficiency on a sector sorely in need of such change. The bad news is that such change involves considerable human suffering and community disruption," Naylor explained. "The social impacts of salmon aquaculture in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska have been equally, if not more, acute than the environmental impacts."

Despite the obvious environmental and social impacts of salmon aquaculture, the United States, Canada and other salmon fishing countries have yet to implement and enforce effective measures to protect coastal ecosystems and communities, Eagle said: "There are inherent difficulties in imposing environmental quality measures on a politically powerful industry that faces fierce international competition. Scientific uncertainty and intra-agency conflicts have also played a role in delaying regulation."

Given these obstacles, the authors suggest the following strategies to minimize the potential harm caused by aquaculture operations:
  • Enforcing an international moratorium on salmon farming - as was done in British Columbia - to allow environmental policy to catch up with the rapid growth of the industry;

  • Creating a single agency to regulate commercial fishing and aquaculture in each country;

  • Increasing demand for environmentally friendly fish by marketing them with eco-labels such as "Wild Pacific Salmon" or "Sustainably Produced Farm Salmon";

  • Creating an international treaty with specific environmental and product-quality mandates.

"Unless some actions are taken on a national and international level, local communities and ecosystems will remain at high risk from the expansion of the global aquaculture industry," Naylor said.
The ENVIRONMENT report also was co-authored by Whitney L. Smith, a CESP research fellow. Research for the report was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

CESP is a specialized research center within the Stanford Institute for International Studies that mobilizes a multidisciplinary network of scholars, students, policymakers and leaders to understand and help solve international environmental problems through science and policy research. The Stanford Fisheries Policy Project, a joint venture between the Stanford Law School and the university’s Hopkins Marine Station, works to improve the condition of the oceans through applied interdisciplinary research.

Ashley Dean is the assistant director for public affairs in the Stanford Center for Environmental Science and Policy.

Mark Shwartz | EurekAlert!
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