Maine Salmon Farms Closed to Benefit Wild Salmon

PORTLAND, Maine, May 30, 2003 (ENS) - The wild North Atlantic Salmon, an endangered species, got bad and good news today. On the heels of a report that says seven countries, including the United States, have failed to even minimally protect them, a federal judge today ordered Maine's largest salmon aquaculture company to empty its salmon rearing pens to give its polluted bays and the wild salmon time to recover.

The terms of U.S. District Judge Gene Carter's decision resolved a lawsuit filed in July 2000 by two Maine residents and the United States Public Interest Research Group against Heritage Salmon, a subsidiary of Norwegian seafood giant Fjord Seafood, for discharging pollutants into the ocean without Clean Water Act discharge permits.

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The number of wild Atlantic salmon in Maine rivers is at an all time low, placing them in danger of extinction, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Photo courtesy Wild Salmon Resource Center)
"It is really big. It is monumental," said David Nicholas of the National Environment Law Center, which was among those representing the plaintiffs in the case. "First of all, it is the first tangible step taken to protect the endangered wild Atlantic salmon," he told ENS. "It has been endangered for a long time, but nothing has happened to actually protect it."

Nicholas said the decision could have implications that extend beyond salmon farms. "In the decision, escaping fish are now considered a pollutant. In other words, you've got these escaping animals regulated as an invasive species," he said.

Areas where fish are being placed into lakes to get rid of non-native plants could fall under the regulation, he said. "It shows that under the Clean Water Act, these may be regulated also. That could be an interesting offshoot of the decision."

Judge Carter allows Heritage "in an expeditious but timely fashion" to harvest what salmon is currently in its pens but sets strict limits on any further stocking, with some pens remaining fallow for up to three years. He also put restraints on reintroduction of any non-North American stock.

This marks the first time regulations have been placed on salmon farming in this country, Nicholas said. "In Maine there were no meaningful regulations for about 15 years because there were no Clean Water Act permits issued, and they operated anyway. They were essentially self regulating."

The Atlantic salmon is an anadromous fish - it spawns in fresh water but lives mostly in salt water. Its historic range, much of it now reduced or extinct, stretched across the North Atlantic Ocean and tributaries from Ungava Bay, Quebec, to Lake Ontario and southward to Connecticut in North America, and from the White Sea in Russia to Portugal on the eastern side.

At the same time, salmon aquaculture, also called salmon farming, has exploded on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Pacific Northwest. More than 700,000 tons of farmed salmon were produced in 2002, almost 50,000 tons of those processed in North American farms. Norway is the largest producer of farmed salmon.

Farmed salmon are reared in net cages that float in the ocean, and pollution from the farms caused by excrement and waste from excess food enters the marine environment. Sources of chemical pollution from salmon farms include antibiotics, pesticides, feed additives, antifouling paints, and disinfectants.

The presence of the salmon farms adds stress to the beleaguered wild salmon. Besides the drop in wild fish numbers due to overfishing, and destruction of salmon streams by logging and development, salmon raised in farms have been escaping from their net cages and mixing with the wild breeds.

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Juvenile Atlantic salmon known as smolts (Photo courtesy University of St. Andrews)
Studies have shown the escapees displace wild fish by wandering randomly into rivers to breed, weakening the gene pool, and they compete with the wild fish for food.

"Protecting Wild Atlantic Salmon From Impacts of Salmon Aquaculture: A Country by Country Progress Report," released today by the WWF and the Atlantic Salmon Federation, says the number of North American Atlantic fish declined from 1,740,135 in 1975 to 428,301 in 2001, a decline of approximately 75 percent.

Atlantic salmon was listed as endangered on the U.S. Endangered Species List on November 17, 2000.

The report finds that seven governments have ignored scientists' warnings even as farmed fish now outnumber wild fish 48 to one in the North Atlantic.

In North America Canada, the United States, Norway, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands all failed to meet even minimum standards to protect wild salmon, the report says.

"The reality is that problems for wild Atlantic salmon have increased while efforts by governments lag far behind," said Tom Grasso, director of the WWF's Marine Conservation Program.

The conservation groups released their report in advance of a meeting next week of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) in Edinburgh, where governments will chart their progress on restoring the wild species.

"Our report is both constructive and timely as NASCO reviews its salmon aquaculture measures," said Grasso. "In theory, the seven nations that made proactive pledges to reduce the environmental impacts of salmon aquaculture had good intentions. Rather than being proactive, these nations have proven to be passive and, subsequently, ineffective," he said.

The report urges a more aggressive approach to protecting wild salmon from salmon farm impacts. Among the recommendations offered are the adoption of salmon aquaculture exclusion zones, better monitoring to minimize farm salmon escapees, and forcing nations to make public all relevant data on the degree of industry compliance with a selected set of regulatory requirements.

In the Maine decision, Judge Carter blasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for delaying issuance of permits and regulations for salmon farms.

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Net cages at a Maine salmon farm (Photo courtesy Ducktrap River Fish Farm)
"The court notes that an EPA determination on what conditions should be placed on the salmon farming operations regarding the permissible discharge of pollutants has been certainly a central responsibility of the EPA. It has, for no apparent reason in the circumstances, evaded for years its functions in that regard."

This follows a May 9 ruling in which Judge Carter found Heritage Salmon in contempt of court for starting new production at one of its salmon farms in violation of the Clean Water Act and a court order that had banned the introduction of more fish into its pens until the other lawsuit was settled.

The judge found that Heritage fisheries made occasional efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of their operations and said they seemed to be operating in self interest rather than in bad faith. Still, he said that is no excuse for operating for more than a decade in violation of Clean Water Act requirements.

"They made no effort to press, in their own interests, for a defining regulatory agenda," he wrote, imposing $50,000 fines on each company. "Rather, they chose to operate in a no man's land between a state of environmental self help and regulatory guidance."

Today's court decision could set a precedent for lawsuits against two other salmon companies accused of the same practices in Maine. They are set for trial October 7.

"I believe that in the future salmon farming in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, which has a large industry, will be more strictly regulated," said Nicholas. "There are serious pollution problems for salmon farms, and they must be and can be addressed. Hopefully the authorities will take it to heart to regulate these farms."

The court victory also points out the power of the portion of the Clean Water Act that allows citizens to sue directly when the government won't enforce the law, Nicholas said.

"The judge excoriated the agencies for not regulating them. This shows the value of citizen suits," he said. "It is key to enforcement of the act when the government doesn't have the political will to do it."