New Brunswick

Advocate wants stricter regulations after escaped aquaculture salmon found in Maritime rivers

Salmon that escaped from aquaculture farms were caught at three sites around the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine this year, including the Gaspereau River during broodstock collection for a critically endangered population.

The escapees were caught at three sites around the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine this year

Atlantic Salmon Federation biologist Eric Brunsdon holds an aquaculture escapee from Magaguadavic River on Oct. 5, 2017. (Tom Moffatt/Atlantic Salmon Federation)

Farmed Atlantic salmon have been found at a hatchery in Nova Scotia among adult fish that were collected from the Gaspereau River.

Staff at the Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Coldbrook Biodiversity Facility in Nova Scotia spotted the two rogue aquaculture fish among seven other wild adult fish. 

The suspected aquaculture escapees were isolated inside the hatchery and scale samples were taken to confirm their origin. After the fish were determined to be escapees, they were euthanized as protocol does not allow for the fish to be released. 

This is not the first time escaped salmon have been caught this year. Nine aquaculture fish have been found in rivers in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Maine. 

According to Maine's Department of Marine Resources, four aquaculture salmon were captured at a dam on the Union River.

Atlantic Salmon Federation scientists also found three aquaculture salmon trying to enter the Magaguadavic River, near Saint George Parish. 

That has conservation advocates like Abby Pond concerned about the future of Atlantic Salmon. 

Pictured here is a Nova Scotia aquaculture site. (Submitted by Tom Cheney)

"Their populations are critically low and if you've got thousands of fish returning into a river, if an aquaculture escapee fish gets into the population and spawns and their genetic material gets into the population, it's detrimental," said the Atlantic Salmon Federation's New Brunswick regional director, in an interview. 

Pond said a farmed salmon is a different genetic strain from a wild fish from the Gaspereau River.

"They're generally in the Bay of Fundy from St. John River stock, so the stock would have been from a different genetic strain than from the Gaspereau River in the live gene bank program." 

The concern is that if domesticated salmon breed with wild fish, their offspring will be less healthy, which could lead to population decline and even collapse. 

Pond wants better regulations in tracking where exactly escaped salmon come from.

Abby Pond is Atlantic Salmon Federation regional director for New Brunswick Programs. (Tom Moffatt/Atlantic Salmon Federation)

It is difficult to track now and Pond attributes this to lack of reporting and weak regulations. 

"The [federal] government has signed on to reduce the number of aquaculture escapees. But there is inconsistencies between provincial and federal governments on tracking and reporting and announcing when these escapes happen." 

In late August, a notice from New Brunswick's registrar of aquaculture reported a net tear at a Cooke cage in Seeley's Cove in Charlotte County.

But Pond notes, "This escapee could have been living in the wild for who knows how long and migrated to this river. So it's very difficult right now because of the lack of regulations in place or the lack of enforcement to be able to track exactly where these escapees are coming from." 

Aquaculture Escapee collected at Magaguadavic fishway after being euthanized. (Neville Crabbe/Atlantic Salmon Federation)

Problem since inception 

Pond said the problem has existed since the inception of the industry.

The Bay of Fundy's geographical features, its dynamic tides and frequency of storms increases the chance of damage to open net fish pens, creating the opportunity for farm fish to escape. 

"We're not against aquaculture, we're for responsible aquaculture... Ideally, we'd like to see a transition away from these open net pens and onto land based aquaculture. So this would never even become an issue," said Pond. 

"We can sustainably feed people without endangering our critically endangered populations even further." 

Pond said there are no monitoring programs in these rivers to specifically watch for escapees – it is only when fish are encountered as part of other research that they are recorded.

"We'd like to see a robust tracking program in place, particularly on the rivers that have endangered populations."