Norwegian Fish Farm Escapees Place Wild Salmon at Risk

GLAND, Switzerland, May 12, 2005 (ENS) - Farmed salmon escaping into Norway’s open waters by the hundreds of thousands are posing an increasing risk of disease, breeding difficulties and genetic contamination to wild Atlantic salmon, a new report from WWF reveals.

About half a million farmed fish escape into Norwegian waters every year, so many that one out of every four salmon or trout found in Norway’s coastal waters are escapees, the global conservation organization reports.

“One third of Norway’s wild salmon stocks are already suffering because of human activity,” said Dr. Simon Cripps, director of WWF’s Global Marine Program. “Add to that the increasing threat of escaped fish and we have to ensure that industry and government clean up their act and begin to act responsibly.”

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Aquaculture net cage in Norwegian waters (Photo courtesy AquaSol)
Norway’s fish farming business is a cornerstone of the country’s economy, producing nearly 600,000 tons of farmed salmon and trout each year. At the same time WWF reports, Norwegian waters hold half of the global stock of wild Atlantic salmon.

With fish jammed tightly into cages, fish farms become breeding grounds for disease and parasites, such as sea lice. Escaped infected fish can take these diseases with them into open water and infect the wild salmon population, already depleted due to dams and weakened by pollution.

"It’s totally unacceptable that such enormous amounts of farmed fish have escaped from fish farms into open waters, undermining the long-term survival of wild salmon," said Maren Esmark, marine coordinator at WWF-Norway.

The lifecycle of the wild Atlantic salmon takes it from the river where it was hatched thousands of kilometers out at sea, and several years later, back again to the same river to spawn its own offspring.

The Norwegian government monitors 30 rivers annually, and the results from 2003, show that eight of these have more than 20 percent farmed fish.

WWF’s report shows that the up-river migration of escaped farmed salmon late in the spawning season physically displaces the eggs of the wild salmon that have already spawned.


Fish farm at Hidra on Norway's southwest coast (Photo John Burka courtesy STAS)
The high number of escaped salmon has led to an increase in interbreeding between the two varieties, which WWF says dilutes the gene pool and threatens the survival rate of offspring.

Areas with dense fish farming are most impacted, WWF researchers report. The Hardanger fjord is by far the sea area with the most escaped fish – and it is located in Hordaland, the Norwegian county with the highest production of farmed salmon. In the outer parts of the Hardanger fjord 86 percent of the wild salmon is of farmed origin.

WWF is also concerned about the increase in escaped farmed cod from Norway’s expanding cod farming industry and the effects this can have on the already imperiled stocks of wild cod. Escaped fish, whether they are salmon or cod, also represent an economic loss for the industry.

The Norwegian government and the fish farming industry have taken some steps to reduce the number of escaped fish, but WWF says more needs to be done.

New measures should include increased security to prevent escapes, the individual tagging of farmed fish, and the location of fish farms away from vulnerable stocks of wild salmon or wild cod, WWF says.

Both the United States and Iceland have requirements for individual tagging of farmed fish. WWF strongly supports the ongoing Norwegian project looking for the most efficient way to introduce a system for tagging of farmed fish in Norway.

Norwegian Minister of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs Svein Ludvigsen acknowledges that there are problems facing the aquaculture industry. Addressing an international aquaculture investor’s conference in Namibia February 14, he said that fish farm "escapees represent another challenge that has high priority from both authorities and industry."

"From an environmental perspective it is important to reduce the risk of genetic interaction between farmed fish and wild fish stocks," Ludvigsen said. "As one effort to reduce escapees the government has introduced technical standards for equipment used in fish farming."

Additional methods have been introduced by the Norwegian government, as well as by the industry, to reduce the amount of escapes. Exclusion zones for fish farming in areas with important and vulnerable wild salmon stocks date back to 1989.


Svein Ludvigsen serves as Norwegian Minister of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs. (Photo by Anton Haugstad courtesy Office of the Minister)
Fifty-two temporary exclusion zones for fish farming were established in 1989 in fjords adjacent to 125 of the most important salmon rivers in Norway. No new licences for salmonid fish farming have been given in these areas since a evaluation of the zones was done in 1996 and the working group recommended that the zones should be retained, and that some should be expanded in order to give a better protection.

All escapes are reported to the government with information about where and when it happened, the extent and the cause of the escape.

The government conducts detailed monitoring of the amount of escaped fish in rivers and fjords, and there is a requirement for mandatory training of personnel and staff on fish farms.

Fisheries Minister Ludvigsen told the investors group that the government has "a predictable and stable regulation regime," and that it does not intend to "raise unnecessary obstacles that hinder a natural development of this industry."

"Nevertheless," he said, "we also need to safeguard specific social considerations for instance with the use of coastal areas, the environment, fish health and welfare, ethics etc. Any aquaculture industry needs to address these issues seriously in order not to create an unfavorable reputation in the international realm."

Ludvigsen said the government is working on a new law governing fish farms that is expected to enter into force in 2006. The measure will have four pillars, of which the environment is one, the minister said.

WWF suggests that consumers can help support responsible fish farming by asking for eco-labeled fish. "Consumers should only buy eco-labelled farmed fish, as these farms have stricter management and with less escapes," WWF says, asking retailers and supermarkets also to take responsibility to ensure that they only buy farmed salmon from the most responsible fish farmers.

WWF-Norway’s report: "On the run – Escaped farmed fish in Norwegian waters" is online here.

WWF’s Mediterranean Programme recently released a report that also highlighted the dangers of disease spreading from fish farms to local wild fish populations.

Links to eight separate guides to sustainable seafood purchases are online.