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Getting the bugs out

Despite obstacles, global farmed salmon industry remains optimistic

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 America.

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 division 
of Cooke Aquaculture, based in nearby Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick. 
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 to obey.

"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 ecosystems.

"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 disaster."

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 impact."

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 challenge.

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 policies.

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' questions.

"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 director.

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 infestation.

"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 year.

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 don't survive."

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 countries?"

Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

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