2000s Archive

The Wild and the Farmed

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Crowded conditions in fish farms provide ideal environments for the incubation of disease. One of the most virulent is infectious salmon anemia (ISA); the usual treatment for an outbreak is the complete destruction of all salmon in an affected pen. ISA was first diagnosed in 1984 in Norway. By the late 1990s, it had appeared in Scottish waters. In 1999, cases appeared in New Brunswick only a few miles north of the U.S. border. Two years later, ISA was found in a single pen in Cobscook Bay. In January, the DMR and the USDA ordered that all salmon in Cobscook Bay—1.5 million of them—be eradicated.

It’s not surprising that some fish farmers resort to using antibiotics and other drugs. The antibiotic-resistance task force of the American Society of Microbiologists singled out aquaculture as one of its biggest concerns after disease-resistant bacteria were found in the intestines of farmed fish. A team of British and Irish scientists has shown that these resistant bacteria can move from fish farms to humans. The meat of wild fish near treated ponds contained residues of potent—and widely rescribed—antibiotics such as Cipro. All of which raises the very real possibility that a dangerous bug immune to an important antibiotic could be growing in a fish pen.

But even healthy aquaculture salmon can harm resident populations of wild fish. Docile they may be, but farmed salmon are notorious escape artists. During a December 2000 gale, more than 100,000 salmon broke free to compete directly for food with Maine’s wild fish and even to crossbreed with them. The resulting offspring have genetic traits such as stubby fins and stout bodies that are fine for a pampered fish in a net pen but are hardly desirable in an endangered wild species that has to run rapids, leap waterfalls, and pursue fast-swimming baitfish in the open ocean.

As the name implies, Atlantic salmon are not native to the Pacific. But West Coast fish farmers rely on Atlantic salmon because they fare better in confined spaces than Pacific species. The effects are potentially more devastating than what could happen on the East Coast. In 1997, some 350,000 Atlantic salmon broke out of pens in Washington. By 2000, escaped Atlantics had established breeding populations in three salmon-bearing rivers in British Columbia. In some cases, the escapees have monopolized prime nest sites normally used by native steelheads. Recently, an Atlantic salmon was caught in the Doame River in Alaska, a state that has banned fish farming to protect its native salmon.

It’s no wonder that, back up in Naknek, aquaculture is viewed as public enemy number one. (A popular bumper sticker reads, “Say No to Drugs. Don’t Eat Farmed Fish.”) After our visit to Heidi, Doug and I return to the family fish camp for dinner. Lila, Doug’s mother, rules the kitchen here as she has for the 31 years that the family has fished. She serves her husband, her three sons, the half-dozen men working for them, and anyone else who drops by. Tonight, the main course is sockeye. Broiled with a bit of salt and pepper, the fish is every bit as delicious as Heidi’s gravlaks.

We stuff ourselves in silence, and when conversation does start, it’s grousing about Chilean imports and cheap farmed fish. Doug Adams used to receive $2.40 a pound for his fish. That was before farmed salmon flooded the market and forced down prices. Lacking the marketing campaign and specialty distribution infrastructure that have made salm­on from Alaska’s Copper River area popular with top chefs, the fishermen of Naknek send their catches directly to a processing ship anchored offshore. There, those spectacularly flavorful fish, freshly caught from icy subarctic waters in accordance with the most stringent of environmental regulations, are flash-frozen and shipped across the ocean. The fishermen are paid just 40 cents a pound.

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