Heather Perry, a biologist with the Atlantic Salmon Federation, holds an escaped aquaculture salmon removed from the Magaguadavic River fishway in August 2023.Submitted

Salmon conservationists are in a fish flap with the aquaculture industry, accusing the sector of allowing farmed salmon to escape and endanger the last remaining wild stock in the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia

But the fish farmers association has shot back, saying the group hasn’t proven the salmon are from the industry’s sea pens, despite recent seal attacks that ripped holes in an aquaculture firm’s nets.

Wild Atlantic salmon are an iconic species, long heralded by anglers and considered sacred to Indigenous communities.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) announced last week it had removed 46 escaped aquaculture salmon from the Magaguadavic River fishway in southwest New Brunswick since Aug. 1, including 10 large fish captured Tuesday, Sept. 5.

The industry has acknowledged hungry seals recently attacked the netting in the sea pens nearby, in which the farmed fish are fattened up. But it also argues the federation is leaping to conclusions.

In response, the federation’s lead scientist, who has 30 years’ experience, said this claim is laughable.

Escapees are considered a major threat to wild Atlantic salmon, which are endangered in the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine. The escapees interbreed and make the wild salmon lazy and unable to survive the annual migration up rivers. 

“In areas where wild Atlantic salmon are heavily exposed to open-net pen salmon aquaculture, it is a primary cause of decline and collapse of stocks,” said Neville Crabbe, a federation spokesperson, in an interview last Thursday. “Not the only one, but a very significant one.”

Aggressive seals blamed

Cooke Aquaculture, which runs Kelly Cove Salmon, reported what it called an “unfortunate seal attack” that damaged three ocean cage nets to New Brunswick authorities on Aug. 24, Aug. 30 and Aug. 31, as required by law.

“This unusually aggressive seal behaviour is a result of rapidly increasing seal populations,” said Joel Richardson, Cooke’s vice president of public relations, in a release. “Seal predation is a major cause of reduced wild fish populations in addition to the threat they pose to salmon farms.”

In a follow-up email Thursday, Sept. 7, Richardson said his company’s divers quickly fixed the holes in the nets as soon as it learned they’d been ripped open.

“In food production, seal takings in the fisheries and aquaculture sector are no different than a fox or raccoon burrowing into a chicken coop to kill farmers’ livestock,” he said. “Preventative measures and barriers must be put in place by farmers to protect livestock and government needs to responsibly manage predator populations.”

He blamed the situation on seal populations throughout the Gulf of Maine and Atlantic Canada that have grown “uncontrollably over the years by congregating in massive breeding colonies. Fish harvesters, fisheries advocates, and some scientists have suggested that the abundant seal population is throwing the ecosystem out of balance – some fish populations risk extinction if current trends continue.”

The Cooke spokesperson also noted other well-documented causes of the declining wild salmon population: habitat loss due to development, continued commercial fishing in migratory routes, municipal waste treatment plants releasing untreated pollutants and contaminants, and hundreds of dams that block fish passage.

Susan Farquharson, the executive director of the Atlantic Canada Fish Farming Association, said it was unfortunate that the ASF “continues its practice of issuing speculative, headline-grabbing ‘announcements’ that aren’t based on science or facts.”

She said the conservationists only use one method for identifying the fish – based mostly on visual inspections – rather than more time-consuming and expensive genetic tests.

She also speculated that wild salmon may have been killed inadvertently in the course of the exercise.

Killing wild salmon in New Brunswick is prohibited, unless it’s for traditional Indigenous practices. 

“There have been numerous attempts to collaborate with the federation on wild salmon conservation but to date they prefer this practice.”

Mark Taylor, a spokesperson for the provincial government, said in an email it was investigating what had happened and would discuss the issue with the ASF.

In a statement, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) – the federal department that regulates the aquaculture sector with respect to fish and habitat protection – said it was aware of the ASF’s announcement, but referred specific questions about the reported escape to the provincial government.

DFO’s statement also said it “recently convened a Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat National Advisory Meeting on risks posed to wild Atlantic Salmon population abundance and diversity by direct genetic interaction with fish that have escaped from East Coast Atlantic Salmon aquaculture facilities.”

It pledged to publish advice from the proceedings later this year.

The science

Kurt Samways, a salmon researcher at the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick, told Brunswick News that while most members of the wild species are genetically programmed to return to their specific home river or stream to spawn, about 10 to 15 per cent are strays that go to the wrong destination.

He said there were three ways to identify whether a salmon is wild, a newly-released conservation fish, or a farmed fish.

The first is a visual inspection that looks at the fin and the scales.

The second is using an isotope method that can tell the scientist what the creature has been eating its whole life.

And the third is a genetic test.

He uses the first two.

“Fish from conservation programs fit in the middle of what may be what an aquaculture or commercial fish would look like and a wild fish,” Samways said. “(This is) because conservation fish are raised in captivity and can look like one or the other.

“In my experience, what I’ve done, for identifying the origins of fish, is a multi-step approach. You look at the growth pattern of the scales but also use stable isotopes to dissect out each year of growth on those scales, to see what those fish are eating.”

He said he couldn’t say what the chances are that the fish caught at Magaguadavic are farm escapees.

“Without being able to see the fish and analyze them, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”

But another scientist, who works for the ASF said he was confident in his visual assessments, pointing to his 30 years’ experience and recognition in courts of law as an expert on Atlantic salmon.

Jonathan Carr said in the past, every time his group sent fin tissues from what it deemed to be escapees to DFO, scientists with the federal department confirmed through genetic tests they were aquaculture fish. He also said the ASF has invited the salmon farming association to pick up all the tissue samples from the fish to run their own genetic tests, but it didn’t take them up on this offer.

“The conservation, Inner Bay of Fundy fish that they are using for the Parks Canada program in Fundy National Park, have growth patterns that we could see right away, which gives us evidence we aren’t killing them. And the second thing is they tag all of their fish. And none of the fish we caught have tags.”

The small tags are implanted just behind the dorsal fin. None of the fish they culled had them, Carr said.

“Everything we do is in line with DFO and global international scientists,” he said. “If the fish farmers are accusing me, then I would go as far as to say they’re accusing the whole fish science world that they don’t know what they are talking about.”

Farmed salmon an economic driver

The region’s salmon farming industry is a big economic driver, growing up to 20 million of the creatures annually. The industry employs more than 8,000 people, generates $2 billion in economic output and provides enough fish to serve more than 300 million meals a year, according to the association.

Next to lobster, farmed salmon is the region’s biggest seafood export, with most of it destined for the lucrative U.S. market.

But the Magaguadavic, whose estuary is near St. George, hasn’t seen a return of wild salmon in three years. The ASF considers them extinct there.

About a dozen other rivers in the outer and inner Bay of Fundy still have dwindling populations.

The conservation group said the fighting fish, as they are known, must be protected at all costs.

“Salmon on the Magaguadavic are gone, but it’s a really important touchstone for what’s happening with the industry in the Bay of Fundy,” Crabbe said. “It’s actually the only continuously monitored site for aquaculture escapes for all of Eastern North America. So it’s a critical sentinel site for us.”

“The real concern we have is that whenever we detect fish at the Magaguadavic, it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Crabbe said. “There are far more fish escaped at sea than we see there, and they’re headed to places like the Hammond River, the Nashwaak, Big Salmon River, even Upper Salmon River, where Parks Canada has a really extensive wild salmon recovery program.

“That program is put at risk by continued escapes,” he said.

In the 31 years of monitoring the Magaguadavic fishway, he said escapees have been found every single season, from a high of 1,200 in 1994 to a low of three in 2021.

“As far as we know, little to nothing has been done in response,” Crabbe said. “It’s almost like governments are saying, ‘the horse is out of the barn, so what are we to do?’

“What we’d like to see is for the provincial and federal authorities to tap into the power of the volunteer salmon conservation community and co-ordinate a response when incidents like this occur, so people can go out to prime wild salmon areas within reach of these farmed fish and use methods to try to detect and eradicate them.

“We’re just not seeing any of that,” he said.

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Sep 11, 2023 at 10:48

This item reprinted with permission from   The Daily Gleaner   Fredericton, New Brunswick

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