« March 2009 Table of Contents
Getting the bugs out
Despite obstacles, global farmed salmon industry
By James Wright
March 01, 2009
It's another bone-chilling late-January morning on Cobscook
Bay, Maine, just a stone's throw from the most easterly point
on the U.S. mainland. Despite the numbing cold gripping the
Northeast this winter, a harvesting crew clad in heavy
foul-weather gear is pulling farmed Atlantic salmon from
circular net pens seven days a week now that the fish have
reached market size of about 10 pounds. The half-million fish
raised at this 40-acre site will soon be processed and
distributed fresh to retailers and restaurants across North
It's a scenario that was difficult to imagine just five
years ago, when three multinational salmon companies abandoned
farming in Maine due to heavy regulatory burdens and the
insecurity of future requirements brought on by
endangered-species protection for the native wild Atlantic
salmon. This regulatory climate, coupled with an intensifying
focus on fish diseases like infectious salmon anemia (ISA),
stunted the growth of the domestic salmon farming industry.
The Maine operation is aptly named Phoenix Salmon, a
of Cooke Aquaculture, based in nearby Blacks Harbour,
The Canadian company is resurrecting salmon
farming in Maine with six grow-out sites leased in this bay,
noted for its cold water and swift currents.
Aquaculture may become an economic boon for Maine's rural
eastern half, as Cooke has also opened True North Salmon Co., a
processing facility in Machiasport, about an hour's drive south
on U.S. Route 1 from the farm. The plant, a former Fjord
Seafood-owned site that re-opened in November, employs more
than 100 locals in an area that badly needs jobs. The return of
salmon farming and processing is big for the Maine economy, but
its success will be partially measured on whether the industry
can prevent infectious fish diseases and parasites plaguing the
world's most productive salmon farming regions.
"Fish health is a huge challenge," says Nell Halse, VP of
communications for Cooke Aquaculture, which also operates
salmon farms throughout Atlantic Canada and Salmones Cupquelan
SA in Chile. "You have to treat fish health like a religion.
You must do everything you can to minimize risk of
cross-contamination: separating year classes; enforcing strict
bio-security measures from broodstock right through to the
processing plant; managing the transport of equipment, vessels,
fish, people - you cannot be diligent enough."
ISA, an influenza-like virus, has swept through numerous
farms in Chile since mid-2007, prompting the slaughter of
millions of fish, many of them the property of the world's
largest salmon producer, Norway-based Marine Harvest, a
subsidiary of which once farmed Maine waters. Salmon farming
critics say the spread of the disease - which was also recently
detected at multiple sites in Scotland and is the subject of an
independent investigation - is the result of a failure to
follow the strict bio-security measures that Cooke has pledged
"The Achilles heel of the aquaculture industry is disease.
And this past year has been particularly scary," says Andrea
Kavanagh, manager of the Pew Environment Group's Salmon
Aquaculture Reform Campaign. Last month, Pew acquired U.S. Food
and Drug Administration documents that showed three Chilean
salmon producers had used a number of drugs banned by the U.S.
government, including emamectin benzoate (a sea lice deterrent
commonly known as Slice). Pew then urged the FDA to conduct
more tests on Chilean salmon and impose an import alert on
Chilean salmon, similar to the agency's 2007 action against
five species of farmed seafood from China that tested positive
for malachite green and other banned farming substances.
Atlantic salmon production in Chile, the No. 2 farmed salmon
producer in the world behind Norway, could dip this year by up
to 50 percent, says Halse, due mainly to ISA - yet will still
top production in North America, which stands at about 140,000
metric tons annually. Several environmental groups that monitor
the aquaculture industry blame overcrowding of farms and
reckless use of pesticides for not only the spread of diseases
and pests but for damage to the sea floor and surrounding
"Overall, there's a huge gap of information on [aquaculture]
diseases," says Kavanagh. "I think [producers] are being honest
now, but there was a long period of denial. If you don't deal
with it immediately it blossoms into a larger problem and I
don't think it's an exaggeration to say it's been a
A vexing virus
ISA had a major impact on Chile's salmon producers in 2008.
Jorgen Christiansen, communication director for Marine Harvest,
says the company's operations in Chile accumulated losses of
$186 million in earnings from the third quarter of fiscal year
2007 through 2008, as well as write-downs of values and assets
totaling an additional $248 million.
The ISA virus may be harmless to humans, but the
socio-economic effects have been severe. According to various
reports, about 7,000 salmon industry workers in Chile have been
laid off since late 2007.
"This has certainly been the most painful part of handling
ISA, but when we don't have fish in the sea, or fish to
process, there is no work either," says Christiansen.
Chile's top salmon producers - Mainstream, Aquachile,
Camanchaca, Multiexport, Los Fiordos and Marine Harvest - in
2007 joined forces to solve the ISA riddle. The companies
formed the G6 organization to coordinate bio-security efforts;
their farms are often clustered together for convenience in
feeding and harvesting.
The G6 is implementing industry-wide changes to regulations
and farming practices, adds Christiansen. "We do not believe it
would have been possible to get this far, so quickly, without
the leading companies coordinating their efforts. As G6
involves 60 percent of the industry, this had a significant
Norway-based Cermaq, which operates farms in Chile under the
Mainstream banner, saw its 2008 Chilean production slip to
30,000 metric tons, a 19 percent decrease from its projections.
CEO Geir Isaksen says ISA remains the company's biggest
Sourcing salmon amid intense media scrutiny can also be
challenging. Some U.S. buyers, most notably supermarket giant
Safeway, opted to wait out the situation in Chile and seek an
alternate source. Safeway spokesman Brian Dowling told SeaFood
Business last April that the retail chain would look for
"opportunities downstream where we can resume purchasing."
Dowling did not return calls to provide an update on its
To quell fears about the potential of a food-safety crisis,
Salmon of the Americas (SOTA), a Miami-based association
representing salmon producers in Chile, Canada and the United
States, helps restaurants and retailers address consumers'
"It is important to stress that ISA does not affect humans,
is not transferable to local fish stocks and is not treatable
with antibiotics," says Laura McNaughton, SOTA's executive
Conflict in Canada
Diseases have certainly impacted farmed fish supplies, but
whether wild salmon populations are acutely harmed by salmon
farms situated near migration routes remains a topic of heated
debate - one that may soon be tried in court.
A December 2007 study by University of Alberta professor
Martin Krkosek concluded that juvenile pink salmon north of
British Columbia's Vancouver Island had shown harmful effects
of sea lice infestation. Krkosek analyzed pink salmon runs in
64 rivers without exposure to salmon farms as well as seven
rivers in the Broughton Archipelago area where young fish
migrate past at least one salmon farm.
Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans disputed
Krkosek's findings, saying that a high mortality rate due to
one source was "unrealistic." The British Columbia Salmon
Farmers Association contends there is no conclusive evidence of
wild or farmed salmon losses directly attributable to sea lice
"Salmon farmers use management techniques that help minimize
the presence of sea lice within their stocks. This includes
fallowing combined with the practice of growing only one age
class on a farm," says Mary Ellen Walling, executive director
of the BCSFA.
But in early February, the Kwicksutaineuk and Ah-Kwa-Mish
First Nation (KAFN) filed a class-action lawsuit against the
British Columbia provincial government, claiming open-ocean net
pens holding thousands of fish have harmed wild salmon and thus
the KAFN's way of life. The government is responsible for the
decline in pink salmon stocks, says KAFN, because it authorized
29 salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago region.
KAFN Chief Bob Chamberlain wants the province to admit its
wrongdoing in authorizing the farms as well as an injunction on
future aquaculture permits.
The suit was timed to coincide with the release of the B.C.
Pacific Salmon Forum's long-awaited final report on improving
the economic, social and environmental sustainability of both
wild and farmed salmon. The forum's 95-page report recommended
an ecosystem-based approach that would establish sea lice
impact levels on wild salmon and limit production of farmed
salmon to 18,500 metric tons annually in the Broughton
Archipelago. The forum did not recommend a ban on salmon farms,
a stance that neighboring Alaska has taken for decades, but did
encourage a closed-containment pilot project.
"With a barrier such as closed containment, floating systems
at sea or on land, farmers can minimize the potential disease
problem. And by relocating from areas with wild salmon
migration routes and estuaries, salmon farmers can at least
reduce the potential impact of infectious diseases to wild
stocks," says Don Staniford, European representative for the
Pure Salmon Campaign.
Back from the brink
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2000
that wild Atlantic salmon were
being protected by the
Endangered Species Act, it spelled
trouble for the handful of
Maine salmon farms. With onerous restrictions on salmon
aquaculture moving forward, most farms and processing plants
were empty about five years later.
The uncertainty from the ESA listing was poison to salmon
farm investors, says Sebastian Belle, executive director of the
Maine Aquaculture Association in Hallowell, Maine. While Belle
says aquaculture in the state never actually went away, the
large companies' desertion from the area was drastic. But this
provided a growth opportunity for Cooke, which began collecting
pieces of infrastructure left by Stolt Sea Farms, Atlantic
Salmon of Maine and Fjord Seafood.
"The Cooke brothers are vested in the region as opposed to
being absentee owners. That makes them a good fit for Maine,
where locally produced food, especially seafood, is at a
premium along the East Coast," says Belle.
Cooke has invested about $60 million in its Maine
operations. But more importantly, Belle adds, Cooke is
committed to a rigorous bay-management system that includes
crop rotations and increased fallowing times of up to one
The salmon farming industry's return to Maine is not only
symbolic of the United States' growing need for viable sources
of farmed fish and the gradually shifting attitude toward
aquaculture, but is a signal of hope for an augmented domestic
source for the nation's third-most popular seafood species. In
2008, U.S. farmed Atlantic salmon imports totaled 372.8 million
pounds, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Aside from Cooke, there's only one other commercially viable
U.S. salmon farm operating now in Washington. American Gold
Seafoods, a division of Icicle Seafoods of Seattle, produces
about 8,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon annually, says
General Manager Rob Miller, who adds the company has been
careful in preventing diseases and pests.
"We have practices in place to make it a sustainable and
long-lasting business," says Miller. "We're small. Our sites
are spread out over Puget Sound - they're miles apart. We
introduce our smolts into low-salinity areas where sea lice
If salmon farming succeeds and grows in the United States,
then Maine and its cold waters might be better positioned as
the industry's muscle and nervous center, says Belle. The
National Cold Water Marine Aquaculture Center is a
44,000-square-foot state-of-the-art laboratory opened last
spring in Franklin, Maine. The Center is focused on driving the
U.S. aquaculture industry forward with cutting-edge science and
technology - starting with salmon.
Enhanced technology and experience will help Maine avoid the
ills of pests and diseases, he says.
"We did make mistakes. We did have an ISA outbreak. We did
have sea lice issues," says Belle, referring to the state's
salmon farming industry problems that occurred in the 1990s.
"But we learned from our mistakes and we now farm very
differently than they do in other parts of the world."
Cooke Aquaculture, which is seeking additional sites in
Maine and Atlantic Canada to enhance opportunities for crop
rotation, welcomes the challenges that Maine's stiff
regulations offer and see them as an opportunity to change the
industry's image in the eyes of U.S. consumers.
"The biggest reason for optimism is that half of the fish
that people eat today are from farms. There'll be a shortage of
fish protein if we don't farm fish," says Halse. "The challenge
is to keep it close: Can we do it here and have jobs for our
people and keep the social and economic benefits in our own
Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at