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International News, August 2004

If readers have any suggestions for international news stories or any comments please email Don Staniford.

Contaminated Chilean salmon sold in Estonia

Last year´s scandal involving 180 tonnes of malachite green contaminated Chilean salmon has taken an unexpected twist. Regular readers of the Salmon Farm Monitor will know that shipments of contaminated Chilean farmed salmon were detained in July 2003 by health officials from the Netherlands in the port of Rotterdam (see International News for August-October 2003).

Malachite green is a suspected carcinogen and a threat to both environmental and public health (for further information see the SFPG consultation response to the US National Toxicology Program). The European Commission´s Health and Consumer Protection Directorate issued four “Rapid Food Alerts” in relation to malachite green contamination of Chilean farmed salmon in July 2003 – thus effectively blocking the contaminated shipment from access to the European Union market.

When the contaminated consignment was released to its owners by the Dutch Authorities in January 2004, a number of Chilean organisations applied for a Court Protection Order to prevent it being shipped back to Chile and sold to unprotected Chilean consumers. Chile's Supreme Court ruled against them on the basis of documents submitted by the shipping and processing organisation “Alize Chile Limitada”. Legal documents obtained by Ecoceanos in Chile and seen by the SFPG indicate that part of the shipment (some 16 tonnes) of contaminated Chilean salmon, seized by Dutch health officials in July 2003, was sold in Estonia in April 2004 (only weeks before Estonia joined the European Union on 1st May 2004).

An email dated 7th April 2004 from importer Gillian Torry to Carlos Munoz Balmaceda, manager of Export Crown Latin America, says that the shipment is no longer in Rotterdam but has “already been delivered and sold into Estonia”. The documents also show that the sale of this salmon involved a complex web of companies, including Bloomsbury International in England and Crown Latin America.

Quite apart from the fact that the farmed salmon in question was way past its best (it left Chile destined for Germany via the Dutch port of Rotterdam on 10th April 2003) and was contaminated with a suspected carcinogen, this issue raises serious food safety questions concerning international trade and the effectiveness (or not as the case may be) of the European Commission´s “Rapid Food Alert” system.

How can a year-old farmed salmon product, classified as contaminated and unsafe for human consumption by European Commission and Dutch food safety officials in July 2003, end up sold in Estonia a matter of weeks before they joined the EU? Such a situation would not have been permitted under EU law after 1st May 2004 so why was it allowed prior to Estonia joining the EU? Were Estonian health and consumer protection officials notified of the “Rapid Food Alerts” issued for this contaminated product? Did the Estonian government warn consumers that this product was contaminated with a suspected carcinogen and had been classified as unfit for human consumption by Dutch health and food safety official’s way back in July 2003?

And if 16 tonnes were sold in Estonia what happened to the other 162 tonnes of contaminated Chilean salmon? Why was the contaminated product not destroyed? Did the Chilean government put pressure on EU member states to allow the salmon to be sold in a non-EU country? These and other questions need to be put to the EC, Dutch food safety officials and the Estonian government. In the meantime, for the sake of their health and that of Chilean salmon farm workers, consumers are urged to give Chilean farmed salmon a very wide berth indeed.

Greenpeace make waves in British Columbia

In early July (10th), Greenpeace activists aboard the Arctic Sunrise joined by First Nations from Canada and Alaska led a flotilla of over forty boats through the Broughton Archipelago demanding an end to open net-cage fish farm expansion along the west coast of North America.

A 20-metre floating banner with the message “Keep It Wild - No Fish Farms” was unveiled next to fish farm pens in the Broughton Archipelago, one of the most besieged and concentrated areas of fish farms in the world.

The salmon farms, owned by Stolt Sea Farms and Heritage Salmon, are implicated in disastrous outbreaks of sea lice on juvenile wild salmon. This year the impact on juvenile salmon is worse than ever causing scientists to caution against local extinctions. It is believed that in the past four years, the salmon runs in this region have declined up to 99% as a result of the fish farms and sea lice.

“We are calling for the closure of all fish farms in our traditional territories including the fish farm at Burdwood group of islands, an area of great significance that is home to a burial site, an old village, important clam beds, important rearing area for all fish species including salmon fry, and nine archeological sites”, said Chief Bill Cranmer, speaking for the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council. “Alaska stands resolutely opposed to fish farm operations, while British Columbia is expanding aquaculture toward Alaksa, a reckless move that heedlessly threatens wild salmon stocks in both countries,” said Jeremy Paster of Greenpeace U.S.

Alaskans are watching events unfold in British Columbia with horror – official applications have already been made for three sites on B.C.’s north coast. One near the Alaskan border at Anger Anchorage has been approved, and the others, at Petrel Point and Azimuth Island, are pending review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

“What’s happening in the Broughton – the eradication of a major wild salmon run - is bound to happen on the north coast toward Alaska where the BC and federal governments are now expanding fish farms,” said Catherine Stewart, Greenpeace Canada’s westcoast campaigner. “Canada’s agenda of fish farm expansion is completely disregarding the lifeblood of the entire west coast: the wild salmon”.

Among those joining the flotilla were members of the Klawock Fisheries Co-operative, a native group from Alaska. Webster Demmert, a spokesman for the Klawock tribe, said: “My worst fear is that they would get to expand fish farms in Canada so that they are close to our borders. The closer and closer they get, the more problems we'll see. We are watching a storm move closer, a Canadian-made storm that threatens to wipe out our traditional way of life and our livelihoods in Alaska. We are here to ask all Canadians to put a stop to this insanely risky endeavour”.

Sea lice and salmon farms

An independent report released in July (20th) by the David Suzuki Foundation adds to and strengthens the growing body of scientific evidence linking open-netcage salmon farms, sea lice, and lethal impacts to wild pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago, Canada. The report – ““Possible Factors Contributing to the Low Productivity of the 2000 Broad Year Pink Salmon” - is authored by Ian Williams, a professional biologist with over 35 years of experience in fisheries research in British Columbia. It reviews, and discounts, other possible factors leading to the extremely low levels of pink salmon returning in 2002 and strongly suggests that sea lice from fish farms in the area are the only remaining explanation for the severity of the observed crash.

The Broughton Archipelago is currently the subject of heated debate as concerned residents, scientists, local and international environmental groups, First Nations, and fishermen are again sounding the alarm about the deadly infestations of sea lice that appear to be decimating pink salmon stocks in the area. The archipelago’s ecologically rich and extensive shoreline has traditionally provided millions of pink salmon with a high-quality nursery area.

However, local residents have been observing abnormally high numbers of dead and dying juvenile pink salmon as well as extreme sea lice infestation in the area since 2001. Sea lice from the 27 commercial open-netcage salmon farms in the archipelago – the largest concentration of farms on the BC coast – are being singled out as the most likely explanation for a striking collapse in wild stocks.

Williams’ report addresses many of the “research gaps” and counter-arguments put forward by governments and industry proponents. The report highlights what is known about sea lice including their potential to kill salmon, research done by biologist Alexandra Morton, and the tendency for the lice to be found in high densities on Atlantic salmon. “Although we have not seen any direct evidence to date linking transmission of sea lice from sea farms in the study area,” Williams concludes, “these data strongly suggest that sea lice from farms had a serious impact”.

“Governments have a responsibility to take precautionary action and, at a minimum, shut down open net pens in the Broughton Archipelago,” says Jay Ritchlin, marine campaigner for the Suzuki Foundation. “The scientific evidence is compelling – the report speaks for itself.” A summary and a full report are available online at: www.davidsuzuki.org/oceans

1 million salmon escape in Chile

Ecoceanos News reported yet more bad news from the world´s most incontinent salmon farming nation, Chile. A staggering 1 million salmon leaked from their cages during a heavy storm on 1st July. So many farmed salmon escape in Chile (ca. 1 million per year according to the Chilean government) that fishermen have urged the Government to allow a “wild” fishery for Atlantic salmon – an alien species not native to Chilean waters.

As in British Columbia (and Alaska) it seems that Atlantic salmon are taking a hold in the Pacific. This single escape is believed to be the biggest ever (600,000 salmon escaped from a farm in the Faroes in February 2002). Globally, escapes from salmon farms in 2002 are estimated at 2 million. With 1 million salmon escaping in a single incident, 2004 looks set to be another bad year for escapes (and wild salmon).

According to coastal fishermen the million salmon escaped from just 22 floating cages in Acantilado Bay area in Puerto Aysén. Gabriel Aqueveque, the regional director of the Directorate of Fisheries (Sernapesca), subsequently admitted: “Salmon escaped in the area of Acantilado Bay, not on purpose but due to the bad weather we had. During the storm there were strong gusts and there was also a lot of rain that caused the Aysén river level to rise. This loosened the anchoring systems of the floating cages in the sea production sites authorized in such place”.

The offending salmon farm is the Japanese-owned company Salmones Antártica. Juan Carl Cardenas of Ecoceanos said: “This new case of the mass escape of farmed fish could have a serious impact on the wild species in the region. Whilst the companies are protected against the losses incurred by the escape of salmon, as yet no responsible mechanism exists for this industry to investigate, mitigate and eliminate the negative impacts being caused by the escape of millions of these carnivorous fish on the marine biodiversity, on the interests of the coastal communities and on the artisanal and recreational fishermen in the South of Chile”.

The President of the artisanal fishermen's Federation Aysen Cofradia, Nelson Matisini, told Ecoceanos News that “This escape of 1 million fish is gravely irresponsible. These (escapes) occur quite frequently and cause a great deal of harm as it is an exotic species, a predator on native species, causes an imbalance in the food chain, and it devours the fish that we catch”. The President of the Puerto Aguirre Artisanal Fishermen's Cooperative, Honorino Angulo, noted that they were now asking for compensation. “Ever since the salmon farms started up at Aysen we have seen reduced levels of sardine and robolo which are the species we use as bait,” said Angulo.

“We now have to go in search of these species a very long way from our usual areas and with this new escape we will have to go and fish (for them) even further away”. It is not just fishery and environmental groups who have expressed concerns - according to Ecoceanos News, the Aysen Regional Health Service recommended that people do not eat the escapee salmon which may contain residues of oxolinic acid, which could provoke a hypersensitive reaction in people allergic to antibiotics. Escaped farmed salmon should surely carry an environmental and public health warning.

Atlantic salmon caught in Alaska (again)

Compared to one million escapees you would be forgiven for thinking that one escapee would not be a problem. Yet in Alaska, where salmon farming is banned and where wild Pacific salmon are the mainstay of the local economy, even a single escaped Atlantic salmon is cause for alarm. The 8.3 pounds escapee in question was caught on 20th July in a commercial gillnet fishery near Ketchikan.

It is not known where the fish originated from but over 2,500 Atlantic salmon escaped from a Stolt Sea Farm operation in neighbouring British Columbia in mid-July. Speaking to the Vancouver Sun a after the Stolt escape at their Sargeaunt Pass site in the Broughton Archipelago, Jennifer Lash of the Living Oceans Society said: “It's ecologically crazy for us to think that the environment can keep handling those pressures. We have to stop salmon farming. When it comes to wild salmon, we really can't afford a high level of risk. This (incident) is another sign that the open-cage system doesn't work. You can't regulate against human error. All the regulation in the world won't stop fish from escaping”.

“Regardless of the origin of this fish, it is important to understand the potential danger that Atlantic salmon present to Alaska’s wild salmon stocks,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game´s Invasive Species Program Coordinator Bob Piorkowski. “Introduction of non-native species, including Atlantic salmon, into Alaska’s fresh and salt waters could result in unexpected and potentially catastrophic consequences ranging from serious reduction of native species and habitat destruction to economic damage.”

This is not the first time Atlantic salmon have been caught in the Pacific waters of Alaska. Since 1994, 577 Atlantic salmon have been found in Alaska’s waters, including freshwater systems such as the Copper and Situk rivers and as far north as the Bering Sea. And last year an Atlantic salmon was caught near Point Baker south of Petersburg. “The invasive threat of escaped farmed fish is an escalating problem,” said Kevin C. Duffy, Commissioner, ADF&G. “More fish farms in British Columbia are proposed and the lack of safe containment continues to plague the industry and threaten Alaska’s salmon industry”.

The ADF&G has urged the public to be vigilant and to actively watch for Atlantic salmon in Alaska’s fresh and salt waters. Over 50,000 wallet sized Atlantic salmon identification cards have been distributed to fishermen and interested citizens throughout the state.

Fish farming takes off in Ireland

Farming the Deep Blue” is, according to the Irish Government, “a unique event, conceived and developed by commercial fish farmers and backed by Ireland’s marine development and research agencies”. And the PR blurb goes on: “(Farming the Deep Blue) is the first conference to be devoted exclusively to a realistic assessment of offshore fish farming. It will take place in Ireland in October 2004. Recognising the role that offshore farming will undoubtedly be required to assume in the future supply of seafood, the two day event will lay down challenges for the industry and will create a powerful new voice for the international offshore farming community.

This timely conference will explore in depth the key issues: species and technology choice, markets, finance and economics, risk management, policy and regulation. It will be addressed by leading international practitioners and experts who will assess the current status, feasibility and potential profitability of offshore marine finfish farming”.

The Irish Government, despite being hauled before the European Commission at least half a dozen times for flouting EU law on aquaculture, are busily promoting fish farming. In July they announced an investment of some €10 million to be invested under the National Development Plan (2000-2006). “We in Government are aware of the vital importance of the industry in our coastal and peripheral communities and this massive level of investment will ensure that aquaculture continues to develop into a vibrant and sustainable industry”, said Ireland's Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources John Browne.

“The impact of this funding will have a huge positive effect in these areas both economically and socially”. This latest €10 million funding will underpin total funding of €26 million in the aquaculture industry during the period of the program and is part of a total package of €31.74 million which has been allocated to support the development of the aquaculture industry in Ireland.

Israel´s “ecological time-bomb”

According to Divernet News researchers in Israel are blaming the deterioration of the once-pristine coral reefs around the Red Sea resort of Eilat on intense fish farming, and not, as previously thought, on pollution or divers. Professor Yossi Loya, Chair for Environmental Research in the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University has been studying the coral reef at Eilat for the past three decades, and believes that the reef is likely to be completely wiped out unless measures are taken to stop nitrates, excreted by over 5 million farmed fish, killing the coral. “It was one of the most beautiful reefs in the world and believe me I've seen them all. It was a pearl and it's really very painful to see it dying. We are in the 11th hour, the very last moment to save them,” said Professor Loya.

Environmentalists have long voiced concern over damage to the coral reefs close to Eilat. Positive measures such as introducing efficient sewage treatment and restricting the areas that divers could visit should have resulted in a regeneration of the reef but in 1993 intensive fish farms began to appear in the Gulf of Eilat.

“What happened between 1993 and 2000 is there was an exponential increase in the yield of fish cages from 300 tons per year to something like 2,000 tons per year,” Professor Loya explained. “The key point is that the Gulf of Eilat is an oligotrophic sea, a sea that does not have nitrogen at all. Coral reefs thrive in seas that are poor in nitrogen. If you increase nitrogen you are changing the environment and in such a sensitive environment like coral reefs it is mainly affecting the reproductive system of corals”.

Fish farmers and scientists from state-owned Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute (which collects royalties from fish farmers) have predictably denied that there is a link between the declining coral and the fish farms. However, a comparison between the reef close to Eilat and those around Sharm and Hurghada - which have mass tourism, poorer sewage treatment and far larger numbers of visiting divers - illustrate that the Eilat reef has deteriorated to a much greater extent.

Experts say the nitrates excreted by the fish numbers amounts to 250 tons annually. A government report by international scientists found the fish cages contributed around 90 percent of nitrates entering the sea around Eilat. “If you calculate how many nitrates are going into the water, it is equivalent to a town of 30,000 people,” said oceanographer Dr Amatzia Genin. “It is an ecological time bomb”.

Canadians COOL on farmed salmon labelling

The battle to label farmed salmon is heating up in Canada. Labelling laws already exist in the European Union and Alaska and Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) will make the labelling of farmed salmon mandatory in the United States from 30th September. Canadian salmon farmers are decidedly luke-warm to the idea though. “We've been trying very hard to get our federal government to ensure restaurants and retailers label their salmon,” said Jennifer Lash of the Living Oceans Society. “It's necessary [so that] consumers can make their own decisions”. Vicky Husband of the Sierra Club added: “It's necessary because not all consumers know what's going on with farmed salmon”.

Over the border in Alaksa restaurants already label whether the salmon they serve is wild or farmed. Kim Elton, the state senator who sponsored the labelling bill, says consumers want to know where their salmon comes from and have serious health concerns about high rates of toxins, including PCBs and mercury that scientists have found in farmed salmon. “This (labelling law) allows the consumer in an Alaskan restaurant to go in and make an informed decision on whether or not they want wild or farmed fish,” says Elton.

Canadian salmon farmers are reluctant for the general public to have too much information about the contaminants, artificial colourings or environmental impacts of farmed salmon. Mary Ellen Walling of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association says she would prefer Alaskan restaurants not label their salmon as wild or farmed. Giving a nice plug for CAAR´s “Farmed and Dangerous” campaign she told CBC News (12th July): “I think it's unfortunate. Part of the challenge we have is that people are trying to equate farmed with dangerous”.

“The labelling of farmed salmon has become a public relations and political battle,” says Jenny Kingsley of the Raincoast Conservation Society in a letter to the Times Colonist (19th July): “The fact is that food labelling is about transparency and the consumer's right to make informed choices. The BC salmon farming industry has stated that it is proud of its product and as such would not oppose Alaskan-style mandatory labelling legislation. Conservation groups, non-government scientists and the public are concerned about the impacts of their product. These impacts are not only measured as PCBs, but as disease outbreaks, sea lice epidemics, escaped farmed fish and chemical pollutants. The solution is clear: Label salmon farmed or wild and let consumers make an informed choice”. And so say all of us.

Playing the wild card

An article – “Where salmon is sold, playing the wild card” – in the New York Times reveals how wild salmon is trumping its farmed cousin. “After rising for a decade, sales of farmed salmon have fallen, and the wild salmon industry, which had taken a beating in competition with lower-priced farmed fish, is experiencing a small rebound,” reports Marian Burros.

“In the first three months of 2004, imports of farmed salmon were down 10 million pounds, and total sales of farmed fresh fillets were down to $140 million from $158.1 million for the same period last year”. At the same time, sales of wild salmon have exploded. “Last year, five million to six million pounds of fillets were sold, about 2 percent of total Alaskan salmon production; this year, the expectation is sales of more than 20 million pounds”.

According to the New York Times: “Supermarkets as well as restaurants are eyeing wild salmon with new interest. Costco, which sells whole wild salmon from time to time, is exploring stocking wild fillets on a regular basis”. Costo´s senior vice president for food and fresh foods says: “There's a lot of resistance to farm raised. Sales of farm raised were growing about 10 percent; now they are flat. So we are looking to test the waters on wild salmon in the next 90 days”. Dave Alameda, national director of seafood for A&P agrees: “We have seen an increase in demand for wild salmon but we can't say specifically whether it was the study (published in Science in January) or just a demand for more natural food”.

Two “celebrity” chefs in New York have also been hooked by wild salmon. According to the Vancouver Sun (7th July), “When Canadian culinary whiz Jamie Kennedy, and Rick Moonen, a New York celebrity seafood chef, stepped off a seaplane in Vancouver harbour recently they were rumpled and tussle-haired, and determined to change the way the rest of the world feels about farmed salmon. They'd just returned from Broughton Archipelago off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, home to 28 salmon farms. Kennedy and Moonen are the culinary equivalent of rock stars. When they speak, the restaurant world listens.

And their words are heating up the salmon-farming spin wars”. Both chefs are now boycotting farmed salmon. “I needed to see things with my own eyes,” Kennedy said. “There are more and more sad tales associated with fish farming, and from a taste point of view, it's not the same”. Kennedy hasn't served farmed salmon for six years even though it hurts him in the pocket (wild salmon costs much more). “It's a pristine fish that everyone loves and the prices have come down in the last decade. It's difficult to find replacements on the menu. In my case, I just bit the bullet. Prices are higher, but I absorb the cost”.

Moonen, too, has gone totally wild and taken farmed salmon off his New York menu even though it made him bucket loads of money. “I'm never using farm-raised salmon again!” he said. “I went with an open mind. I was armed with information from both sides. But I'd never had a second thought about the amount of danger sea-lice presented to wild species in the area. I was there. I went up there and I saw it. Every single fish I pulled out was dying. Guess what ... if you take the same trip I took and look me in the face and tell me I need more proof, then I give up! It's conclusive! It's like being cut in half by a speeding car and barely having a brain wave and doctor's saying you're not dead yet. At the end of the day, I run a restaurant and I have to be cautious about being alarmist, but to me, this is a reality a scary one. If something isn't done, it'll be horrifically irresponsible”.

Kennedy sounds almost evangelical about spreading the gospel of wild salmon. “I realize being in the position I'm in, I have the power to influence diners and colleagues,” he says. “Building a career, one's more concerned with self-aggrandizement, professionally. With me, that's already in place. What becomes important is using that celebrity to decimate information”. And it seems that the bad news about farmed salmon is spreading throughout the kitchens of New York - only days after returning from Canada, another five New York chefs signed up their no-farmed-salmon campaign.

Other high-profile chefs in the U.S., including celebrity chefs like Mark Peel of Campanile in L.A.; Eric Ripert, of Le Benardin in New York; Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Miliken, of Border Grill in L.A. and Las Vegas; Charlie Palmer of Aureole in New York and Las Vegas; Sara Moulton of Food Network's Sara's Secrets, and Tom Douglas, a Seattle restaurant mogul, have now been urged to follow their lead. For more information see the “Farmed and Dangerous” campaign.

EPA effluent guidelines

On 30th June the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States finalized a new rule establishing regulations for concentrated aquatic animal production (CAAP), in other words fish farms! The regulation will apply to approximately 245 fish farm facilities that generate wastewater from their operations and discharge that wastewater directly into waters of the United States. This rule will help reduce discharges of conventional pollutants, primarily total suspended solids and will also help reduce non-conventional pollutants such as nutrients. According to the EPA, “To a lesser extent, the rule will reduce drugs that are used to manage diseased fish, chemicals used to clean net pens, and toxic pollutants (metals and PCBs)”.

The final rule applies to direct discharges of wastewater from existing and new facilities that produce at least 100,000 pounds of fish a year and discharge at least 30 days a year and facilities that produce at least 100,000 pounds of fish a year in net pens or submerged cages. When the rule is fully implemented, discharges of total suspended solids will be reduced by more than 500,000 pounds a year and biochemical oxygen demand and nutrients will be reduced by about 300,000 pounds per year. Information about this program and the final regulation is available from the EPA.

Embarrassingly, the EPA also find themselves the subject of a 60 day notice warning of impending legal action by three conservation and fishing groups. ENS (27th July) reports that the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, and the Washington Toxics Coalition, are challenging EPA’s determinations of the effects of certain pesticides on salmon. “Pesticides are deadly by design and they’ll kill baby salmon after the poisons wash off fields, orchards, and lawns into salmon streams,” said attorney Patti Goldman of Earthjustice, the nonprofit, public interest law firm representing the groups.

“EPA’s job is to regulate their use so they don’t violate the Endangered Species Act, but their own sister agency in the federal government has found them failing miserably at this obligation,” Goldman said. “EPA is trying to get away with decades old science instead of doing right by the salmon,” said Erika Schreder of Washington Toxics Coalition. “We’re holding EPA accountable for truly complying with the Endangered Species Act because giving it lip service doesn’t help salmon”.

Even more embarrassing for the EPA is the fact that conservation and fishery groups are supported by the Government´s own National Marine Fisheries Service. In a draft letter, dated April 2004, fisheries service officials said the EPA's analysis of pesticides did not include hundreds of relevant scientific articles, raising concern that the result “may be biased toward concluding that a pesticide does not pose an ecological risk to listed resources, when in fact, it does”. This is not the first time the EPA have been caught out - in January, a judge barred the EPA from permitting the use of 38 commonly used pesticides along all rivers and streams inhabited by threatened or endangered salmon on the West Coast.