The Reality of Salmon Farm Fish Escapes
Marine Harvest, now renamed Mowi
Some Data and some Thoughts!
By Sally Campbell
What is wrong with caged farmed salmon escaping into the wild? Surely this is a good thing? No more cruelty – they will help supplement the progressive loss of wild salmon populations and recreational fishermen will have more success. BUT definitely NO ! This is extremely bad with huge long term environmental impact. These caged fish are essentially crippled. Genetically they do not resemble in any shape or form wild fish. Most start their life hatched in tanks in Norway. They gain no intuition in how to survive in the wild. Their DNA does not match the pure wild fish programmed to migrate to Scottish breeding sites. As they develop their whole life experience is confined to a cage with little swimming exercise, hence double the fat content of the muscular flesh. They have not learnt to forage as food comes raining down on them every mealtime. Released into the wild they become easy prey, they are chemically compromised, can spread parasite infections, and ultimately can compromise the genetic makeup of wild salmon. It is not surprising the industry tries to keep quiet their shockingly poor record in this respect.
In August 2020 Arran became aware of North Carradale fish farm loss of mooring ropes on 20 August, and the tally of the disaster has now been quantified: 48,834 farmed salmon escaped, 30,616 died and the rest of the 250,000 in the nets harvested from North Carradale farm. Many dead were washed up on local Kilbrannan beaches. There is concern about live farmed salmon interbreeding with wild salmon and the video here gives information on what to do if you find a dead one, or remains of one. Anglers across Ayrshire have been warned to report any obviously farmed salmon. More here.
The farmed fish are identifiable because of deformed or shortened features such as their fins, gill covers and snouts. If anglers catch suspected farmed salmon they should alert Marine Scotland’s duty inspector mailbox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Alan Wells, Chief Executive of Fisheries Management Scotland, said: “In Norway, interbreeding between wild and escaped farmed fish is considered the greatest threat to wild Atlantic salmon and it is important that all avenues are explored to mitigate impacts on wild salmon arising from this event. We will be working with Mowi Scotland and Marine Scotland to ensure that this occurs. In the longer-term we must learn the lessons required to ensure that it is not repeated in future. A statement from Mowi said: “The company continues to engage with local and national wild fisheries groups to monitor and assess the presence or absence of salmonid genetic introgression.”
But this is not the first salmon farm problem for Mowi, (previously called Marine Harvest MH) in Kilbrannan Sound. Public information from the Scottish Government from that time tells a similar story; in June 2015 thousands of salmon worth about £240,000 escaped from none other than North Carradale on the eastern coastline of Kintyre, then known as Eilean Grianain, raising fears that they would breed with wild fish stocks and dilute the purity of the stock. The 16,000 fish, weighing an average of 4.5kg (10lb) each, escaped from the MH farm through a hole in the net following stormy seas and winds of up to 70mph in the early hours of June 2. It was the biggest escape from a Scottish mainland marine salmon farm since 2009 at Strone Point in Argyll when nearly 59,000 fish escaped from a farm operated by Lighthouse Caledonia.
This escape of 16,000 farmed salmon was described by experts as “potentially massively serious” for wild salmon in the Firth of Clyde region. “The escape happened as the result of a tear in the net during the bad weather conditions. MH Manager Mr Sutherland reported: “As the fish were immature they would have headed straight out to sea.” Others, however, expressed fears that the farmed salmon, might crossbreed with wild Atlantic salmon, weakening the genetic fitness of the species. Dr Craig MacIntyre, manager of the Argyll Fisheries Trust at that time, said: “We don’t actually know where escaped salmon go. “There may be an urge to find a river, or they might hang around in the Firth of Clyde area for a while, or they may head to open sea. Nobody knows. And these were 10lb fish – ready for harvest.” The Argyll Fisheries Trust, a charity that looks after and monitors the rivers and waterways of Argyll, Bute and Arran – including local rivers such as the Ruel, Eachaig, Aray and Fyne – notified local freshwater fisheries groups and angling clubs of the salmon escape. Craig MacIntyre continued: “This single escape has probably doubled the number of salmon in the Firth of Clyde. It is potentially massively serious for wild stocks.
“These are domesticated Norwegian salmon. Any interbreeding is like crossing domesticated cattle with wildebeest. What you end up with is no longer wild – and it takes decades for the impacts to work their way through the system and become apparent.” A spokesperson for the Marine Conservation Society suggested “In general there are concerns about the impacts of escaped farmed salmon on wild population because of their ability to interbreed and make subsequent offspring less fit for survival.”
It is ironic that the manager of the salmon farm, Alan Sutherland said at the time: “Marine Harvest has been working with the Scottish Government and partners in the industry to develop the Scottish Technical Standard for containment which aims to prevent fish escapes. “Our aim as a company is to prevent fish escapes altogether and we very much regret this incident. We will continue to closely monitor all the equipment on our farms to ensure that fish escapes do not happen in the future.” Five years later the escape is greater. We are entitled to know what about standards, technical, maintenance and management that resulted in this situation. Storm Ellen was forecast, it did not come out of nowhere. Please stop blaming weather for failings!
What happens now in August 2020 in Kilbrannan Sound and the Clyde area? The last time Argyll Fisheries Trust began a monitoring programme of wild river salmon stocks in response to the escape. “We would hope to start taking genetic samples now, so that we have a baseline, if you like, before carrying out river surveys in late autumn, said Craig MacIntyre. “In the meantime I would ask any anglers out there to let us know if they catch a fish that doesn’t look right. The body shape of farmed salmon is more rounded than wild salmon, and the pectoral fins are shorter than their wild counterpart. “Also, the fins in general are often in a poor condition, as they are frayed and eroded from the cages. If you come across these, take a photo and send it to me at the Argyll Fisheries Trust.”
But these two incidences are not just the only problems with Mowi fish escapes in Scotland. In the last two years two other salmon farms owned by Mowi have experienced major escapes:
In Nov 2018 Marine Harvest Scotland reported that more than 24,000 salmon escaped from its farm on a high-energy site at Hellisay, Isle of Barra, following storm damage. In a statement, MH said notification of a sustained storm event and potential for escape were reported to authorities on November 11 and confirmed when staff were able to safely access the site to investigate and repair the damage and inventory the fish population. The investigation and recount confirmed that 24,572 salmon, weighing approximately 1.1 kgs, escaped from a netting tear to one cage. The remaining stocked cages did not suffer significant damage. The company said the equipment on site was new, robust and exceeded the Scottish Technical Standards, but suffered due to the high wave heights experienced in the storm events. “We are very disappointed that our infrastructure was unable to withstand these severe weather challenges,” said Gideon Pringle, operations director (farming). “Our priority is to keep our employees safe during these extreme events, but admittedly we need to do a better job at keeping our fish contained, especially at our high-energy sites.”
The company said it would review the site’s moorings, nets and cages used at offshore locations, and make the necessary changes to ensure the site can effectively withstand the most challenging weather conditions. Hellisay was the first of MH’s sites that could truly be considered “high-energy”. It has since developed high-energy farms off Muck and Rum.
In October 2019 Hellisay, Isle of Barra suffers a further loss of 23,970 salmon due to escape. Ben Hadfield, Mowi’s chief operating officer (farming) Scotland & Ireland, said: “We are very disappointed that a further loss has occurred at Hellisay, which due to weather conditions is one of our most exposed farms. Our ambition at Mowi is to realise 100% containment for all our stock and we have regrettably fallen short of this goal in recent years, but are determined to prevent future escapes at all our sites.”
The company said in 2018 that it would review the site’s moorings, nets and cages used at offshore locations, and make any changes required to ensure the site could effectively withstand the most challenging weather conditions. The most recent escape at the Hellisay site was a costly one. Even at October’s unusually low spot prices, the escaped fish would have been worth around €500,000 (approx £446,000)
On 17 Jan 2020 Colonsay another escape. The company said a cage was damaged when Storm Brendan passed through the area. Almost 74,000 fish escaped through a tear in the cage netting. “We are very disappointed that this structural failure has occurred,” says David MacGillivray, Mowi’s regional farm manager. “Despite storm Brendan severely battering many parts of Scotland’s coast last week and Colonsay being a remote and particularly exposed location, we expect our modern infrastructure to withstand these challenges.”
The incident was the third major escape from Mowi’s new generation of high capacity offshore sites in Scotland in just over a year. Last October 2019, 23,970 and in November 2018 24,572 salmon escaped from the firm’s Hellisay site in the Western Isles.
With climate change, increasing storms around the coasts, it would seem to me that the time is coming when salmon farms must be taken out the sea altogether. Put them on land close to urban markets?
What about at sites abroad? Not just a Scottish Problem
Marine Harvest (Mowi) has had problem with many escapes from fish farms around the world, in Norway, Chile and British Columbia in Canada. This is not a uniquely Scottish problem. Some examples:
In Norway: Dec. 2011 MH, the world’s biggest salmon farmer, started re-catching fish that escaped from an enclosure in Nordfjord, northern Norway, after the storm Dagmar damaged nets over Christmas. It was not clear how many fish escaped from one enclosure, which held 139,000 salmon with an average weight of 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds).
In Norway: Dec. 2013 Nordic Stocks – Marine Harvest. The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries said it would report MH, the world’s biggest Atlantic salmon producer, to the police after 60,000 salmon escaped one of its fish farms in November; the Norwegian daily Dagens Naeringsliv quoted. “We have a reason to believe that Marine Harvest has violated the law on aquaculture,” Staale Hanse, a regional director at the Directorate, told the paper.
In Chile: July 2018 Regulators charged Marine Harvest Chile with the deficient operation of its Punta Redonda farming site in Region of Los Lagos following the escape of 690,000 salmon on July 5. The salmon escaped from a MH ASA farm during a storm, according to the Bergen, Norway-based company. The fish were not fit for consumption, Marine Harvest said in a press release, and the company tried to recapture them. These antibiotic-fed fish escaped the farm. It was thought to be the latest environmental incident to threaten local economies.
Chile’s salmon industry was already under attack for the use of hundreds of tons of antibiotics every year. Later in early November 2018, Chile’s Superintendency of the Environment (SMA) accused MH Chile of causing environmental damage by failing to recapture at least 10% of the escaped fish. Regulators charged the company with the deficient operation of its Punta Redonda farming site following the escape of these 690,000 salmon. In August 2020 Chile fined Mowi a record $6.7m (over £5M) over the Los Lagos escape in 2018. SMA chief Cristobal De La Maza said the fine “closes a long and complete investigation process on our part. We want to give the signal that all those companies that do not respect the regulations and, in addition, infringe them causing environmental damage”. Mowi Chile has quoted that it will appeal the decision.
In Canada: Dec 2019. Up to 21,000 Atlantic salmon escaped into British Columbia waters after a fire at Mowi (formerly MH) fish farm near Port Hardy. The company said divers investigated the damage resulting from an electrical fire at this salmon farm at Robertson Island, which caused a net to collapse. It notified federal regulators and area First Nations about the fire and the subsequent escape of the estimated 21,000 Atlantic salmon from the damaged net pen. Area environmental and Indigenous groups said in a statement that Atlantic salmon are not native to Pacific waters and the escape presents ecological and environmental risks to wild salmon stocks.
Ernest Alfred of the ‘Ngamis First Nation and wild-salmon advocate Tavis Campbell, on the other hand, issued a news release saying the presence of Atlantic salmon in ocean water “presents a serious threat to native Pacific salmon through transfer of pathogens and other associated risks”.
The federal Liberal government pledged during the autumn election campaign to transition B.C.’s open-net pen salmon farms to closed containment systems by 2025.
In June 2020 two First Nations have asked the British Columbia provincial government to close Norway-based salmon farmer Mowi’s Shaw Point site after 1,000 juvenile Atlantic salmon escaped into territorial waters in May. Mowi confirmed a hole was discovered in a net on May 24, which resulted in the escape. On June 18 – three days before Canada celebrated its National Indigenous Peoples Day –chiefs from the We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum Nations said in a statement they had written a letter June 9 to BC provincial government asking it to cancel Mowi’s ability to operate on the site. The letter said Mowi delayed notifying the nations about the escape. “That site no longer has our consent to operate within our core territory,” said We Wai Kai Chief Brian Assu.
Can Scotland learn from a broken system in British Columbia’s waters?
Chief Brian Assu said the First Nations, which are working on a structure for their own finfish aquaculture regulations in the territories, have not made headway through B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (UNDRIP), or through Canada’s DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) on the issue. In 2019, BC signed UNDRIP into provincial law. UNDRIP is a comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples that sets out basic human rights within an indigenous context, but is not yet Canadian law. The letter said the province “has failed to engage substantively” when it comes to working with the We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum Nations.
“We have tried to build on the work done by Nations in the Broughton Archipelago and negotiate a decision-making agreement that is based on the best science, the best data and the knowledge that our communities have,” said We Wai Kum Chief Christ Roberts. “But we need the BC government to be a partner in this.” “The system is broken,” said Assu. “We cannot stand by and wait for B.C. to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, or for DFO to protect our vital resource.”
Whilst not a Mowi salmon farm involved, it is worth noting that Washington State, USA in March 2018 effectively banned the farming of Atlantic salmon in its waters and leases will not be renewed. This followed the escape of 305,000 fish from a farm in Washington State. Chief Robert Chamberlin with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs says the ban will be welcomed by Indigenous people in B.C. and Washington. So I ask, when will that sort of environmental, ecosystem, community and marine law considerations come to the inshore waters in the west of Scotland?
The Scottish Government needs to urgently consult the best science, the best data, including weather data, and so importantly our Scottish communities about local salmon farms, many of which are growing in biomass, having problems with disease and escapes. Decisions based on the PR and power of salmon companies will no longer do. The climate is changing, more storms, rising water temperatures and disease will affect the health and welfare of salmon in cages and continue to damage ecosystems around the west of Scotland, so precious for other purposes than multinational quick profit salmon aquaculture companies. Since 2006 there have been 65 incidences with salmon farms nets/ escapes in companies now owned by Mowi (from Scottish Government figures) See www.aquaculture.scotland.gov.uk. This is on top of disease figures. Enough is enough. Mowi captures less than 1% of escaped salmon, according to Scotland’s aquaculture. There is a fine in Chile if <10% are recovered. Nothing appears to happen in Scotland.
August 2020 voiceforarran.
Post-note: 31 August: Farmed fish are already turning upon rivers, Stinchar and Leven so far. This is bad news for wild salmon.
Photo below is of a farmed salmon, note its tail, (a give-away), being eaten by a seal near Bute.
Featured image shows the farm adrift at North Carradale. Photo credit to Corin Smith.