Diseased Steelhead Escape Norwegian Farms; Threaten Last Wild Atlantic Salmon
In early January, after hurricane “Nina” hit Norway’s southern coast, tens of thousands of steelhead (non-native in the Atlantic Ocean) that were being raised in offshore pens escaped when the pens broke free of their moorings. A story in the Norwegian newspaper estimated that roughly 150,000 sexually mature steelhead escaped from the nets and local plants and moved into the adjacent rivers of the Norwegian coast, where the few remaining wild Atlantic salmon were nearing the end of their spawning season.
Near the town of AskØy, local sport fishers quickly detected the presence of the fish and noted their distressed appearance- aside from the “clubbed” fins common on artificially raised fish, these had external lesions, many were missing eyes, and once opened, they noted internal hemorrhaging in the muscle tissue (to see pictures, see). Fearing that the steelhead would compete with wild Atlantic salmon for spawning grounds, or disturb already seeded redds, the outraged fishermen began trying to remove as many steelhead from the water as possible. As reported in Alex Morton’s blog, some also sent samples to the lab of Dr. Are Nylund at the University of Bergen, an expert on salmon viruses. At least one of the steelhead was positive for salmon alphavirus, a pathogen that causes pancreas disease in Atlantic salmon and one that has caused increasing losses for Norwegian aquaculture over the past decade. In addition, the fish had recently been medicated for sea lice and so were not edible because the drug was still present in their flesh. The wild Atlantics were now in jeopardy of becoming displaced and/or infected by a disease carried by the exotic steelhead, an odd juxtaposition to the situation here in the Pacific Northwest.
The public outcry in Norway first led to a new government mandate to increase fines for owners of salmon farms responsible for escapees (something that has been tried before, with negligible results). However, the leader of the Center Party (Ola Borten Moe) raised the stakes considerably when he suggested that it was time to move the salmon farms onto land- and as an inducement, to waive the $11.5 million dollar licensing fee for companies that could demonstrate their land-based operations were not damaging the environment. In B.C., it does not appear that the Norwegian companies that control the salmon farming industry are charged any fees at all.
Closer to home, the Pacific Northwest’s first land-based Atlantic salmon farming operation (Kuterra, near Port McNeil, B.C.) is reporting that they are on target for meeting production cost goals. The facility was built in collaboration with the Namgis First Nations and the product is marketed as environmentally friendly, drawing a higher price. However, without the assistance of government and private grants, it is unlikely that the facility could compete with ocean-based net pen farming operations due to the higher costs of operation. Norway’s approach- if it takes hold- of using economic incentives to make the industry more environmentally responsible is one that we should consider here at home.