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International News, September 2004

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

Don Staniford, author of The Monitor's International News

Chilean salmon contaminated with malachite green (again)

Just over a year after the malachite green scandal blew up in the face of the Chilean salmon farming industry, the suspected carcinogen has once again been detected by Dutch health officials in farmed Chilean salmon destined for supermarkets across Europe. The European Commission’s Directorate General of Health and Consumer Protection reported the findings on 11th August as part of the European Union’s “Rapid Food Alert System”. In 2003, a total of 11 Rapid Food Alerts for malachite green (the vast majority for contamination of Chilean farmed salmon) were issued by the European Commission.

This latest finding is of major embarrassment to the Chilean salmon farming industry that claim to have tested 12,000 samples of salmon since June 2003 – and all have been supposedly negative. Dr Betty San Martín of The Pharmacology Laboratory of the Faculty of Veterinary and Livestock Sciences of the University of Chile told the La Segunda newspaper in June that: “The events of last year set a precedent for the authorities and producers. This is a substance that has been banned outright since 1990 and producers have stopped using it in their productive systems.”

So why then, if Chilean salmon farmers have stopped using malachite green, is it still being detected in farmed salmon? “Reassurances from the Chilean government about the disappearance of the fungicide malachite green in salmon exports to Europe have been undermined by a new detection in The Netherlands,” reported the industry news service Intrafish (20th August). “The substance, banned in the European Union since June 2002, was originally used as a fungicide on salmon net pens. Accusations of the use of malachite green have plagued salmon producers since that time”.

Juan Carl Cardenas told Ecoceanos News (20th August): “This shameful new case of contaminated Chilean salmon being detected with residues of the carcinogenic fungicide malachite green raises serious doubts about this industry’s commitment to its environmental and public health responsibilities. This new seizure of Chilean salmon rings alarm bells for pollution levels of dangerous and prohibited chemicals in our Southern lakes”.

It is not just Chilean salmon farmers who have been caught up in the malachite mess. According to the Daily Mail (10th August) both Marine Harvest Scotland (owned by Nutreco) and the supermarket chain Morrisons are guilty of supplying and selling malachite green contaminated farmed salmon. “Illegal levels of a cancer causing chemical have been found in salmon sold by a leading supermarket,” wrote consumer editor Sean Poulter. “In a survey of farmed salmon on sale at major stores, samples from Morrisons contained malachite green; a chemical banned in Britain in June 2002 amid concerns that it is toxic and might trigger cancer.

The findings – to be revealed soon by the UK Government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate – are yet another blow to an industry reeling from warnings about pollutants in salmon. Stores and producers who supply contaminated salmon could be prosecuted and fined. The EU has been so alarmed at the presence of chemical residues in salmon that it had threatened to impose an export ban on the UK, which could devastate the industry”. This is not the first time Nutreco have been implicated in the malachite green scandal – in 2002 Marine Harvest Chile were fined for the illegal use of malachite green”.

Sea lice research fingers salmon farms

New scientific studies on sea lice infestation by Scottish and Canadians researchers put the finger of blame fairly and squarely on salmon farms. The July issue of the journal Aquaculture Research finally published papers from “Sea Lice 2003 - Proceedings of the sixth international conference on sea lice biology and control”. The Herald (30th July) reported the new studies with the headline: “Salmon farms are source of sea lice, say scientists”. According to the Scottish-based Sea Trout Group (29th July) the “new research points to fish farm cages as most likely source of sea lice” and “show links between sea lice infestation on salmon farms and ‘pools’ of sea lice juveniles ready to infect wild fish on a Scottish sea loch”.

Studies carried out in Scotland found sea lice effects up to 5km away from the salmon farm. Sea lice infestation over such a large area spells disaster not just for wild salmon but also wild sea trout. “These studies show that lice larvae become concentrated in the areas around river mouths – just the places where sea trout and wild salmon smolts emerge,” said STG spokesperson Fiona Cameron. “The sea trout, which remain in coastal waters rather than heading out to the ocean, have no chance of avoiding infestation in such circumstances. The scientists suggest that their work provides the ‘first tentative evidence’ that lice from a fish farm were the source of a concentration of larvae at the mouth of a sea trout river”.

The STG called for immediate action: “Each season which sees second-year salmon carrying sea lice in cages anywhere within 5 km of salmon and sea trout rivers presents a very real and substantial threat to our wild fish – so action is needed now. We are now seeing the results of three decades of development of fish farming in what has been a basically uncontrolled way. Studies such as the newly-published ones demonstrate that the effects of sea cages are likely to be spread over much larger areas than has been thought,” urged Cameron.

It is not just in Scotland where sea lice from salmon farms are rearing their ugly head. Other papers presented at “Sea Lice 2003” included Canadian research from New Brunswick: “Sea lice infestation rates on wild and escaped farmed Atlantic salmon entering the Magaguadavic River, New Brunswick” by Jonathan Carr and Frederick Whoriskey and “Sea lice treatments, management practices and sea lice sampling methods on Atlantic salmon farms in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada” by Jillian D Westcott, K Larry Hammell and John F Burka.

The following Scottish studies were also published: “Distributions of planktonic sea lice larvae in the inter-tidal zone in Loch Torridon, Western Scotland in relation to salmon farm production cycles” by Margaret A McKibben and David W Hay; “Management actions in relation to the controversy about salmon lice infections in fish farms as a hazard to wild salmonid populations” by Alasdair H McVicar and “Time-series models of sea lice abundance on Atlantic salmon in Loch Sunart, Scotland” by Eddie McKenzie, George Gettinby, Kevin McCart and Crawford W Revie”. A full list of papers is available on-line.

Fish meal ships plunder the seas

Australia is bracing itself for the visit of Veronica. The Age newspaper (28th August) reports that “The world’s second largest fishing trawler with the dubious reputation of having killed more fish than any other boat in the world is bound for Australia to trawl untouched fishing grounds”. The Age has been told that Veronica wants to guzzle between 50,000 and 100,000 tonnes each year, to be turned into fish meal for South Australia’s flourishing tuna farms. Australia’s tuna farms have grown dramatically since the early 1990s and now supply over half the world’s farmed tuna.

Veronica is about as welcome as a verruca in a jacuzzi – she is 106 metres long, has a crew of 50 and is five times larger than a normal trawler. With three processing factories on board she can hold 5000 tonnes of frozen fish and is capable of staying at sea for six months. “The Veronica has environmentalists alarmed because of its fishing power and the lack of management controls over fishing in Australia,” wrote Robert Wainwright in The Age. “They say the vessel is capable of scooping up the entire allowable Australian annual catch of 60,000 tonnes”.

The insatiable appetite of fish farms is threatening fish stocks around the world – in Europe as well as in Australia. “Deep sea fish stocks are being ‘mined’ at more than twice the rate they can stand by European fishermen to provide food for farmed salmon,” wrote Charles Clover in the Daily Telegraph (1st July). “A free-for-all is in progress in the North Atlantic with some of Europe’s largest fishing vessels scooping up stocks of the little-known blue whiting, a relation of the cod, and selling it for fishmeal. Scientists believe stocks of blue whiting, usually caught at 660ft-1,300ft down in international waters from North Africa to the Barents Sea, cannot last for more than a couple more years at this level of attrition.

Vessels, including the world's largest trawler, the 14,000-ton Irish vessel Atlantic Dawn, are arriving in port, some of them so heavily loaded with blue whiting that they look like submarines”. Charles Clover’s excellent new book on the crisis in world fisheries - “The End of the Line” - is now available.

Sun Aqua told to fish off from Australia

The residents of Moreton Bay (including sea turtles and endangered dugongs) can sleep more soundly after the Queensland Parliament rejected Sun Aqua’s proposal to install sea cages to farm snapper and kingfish. Queensland Conservation Council’s Simon Baltais said: “There has been a massive community outcry against this proposal over the last three years. Scientists, environmentalists, fishermen and local groups have all seen this proposal as a move to make money out of a fragile natural resource without consideration for the consequences”.

Mr Baltais congratulated all those who have been involved in the campaign: “It’s been a long drawn out process and the QCC thanks all those who have been supportive of our efforts – including state bureaucrats, the Brisbane City Council and other environmental groups such as the Moreton Island Protection Group, the Australian Marine Conservation Society and the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland”.

A statement issued by Premier Peter Beattie (31st August) pointed to a report from the Coordinator-General which effectively blocked the development on environmental grounds: “I am not satisfied that the environmental effects of the project, in particular, the discharge of nutrients, can be adequately addressed to the strict standard required and applied to other facilities which discharge into eastern Moreton Bay. In accordance with the provisions of sections 35 and 39 of the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act, I recommend that any application for a development approval for an Environmental Authority for Environmentally Relevant Activity 1 (Aquaculture) for this project must be refused”.

Premier Peter Beattie said the Co-ordinator-General’s recommendation meant that the project could not proceed. “It is the responsibility of Government to establish development approval frameworks that allow the correct balance between development and protection of the environment,” he said.

Speaking to the Courier Mail (31st August), Premier Beattie said: “Experience in other parts of the world has shown the folly of allowing major developments which can have an adverse impact on the environment”. Mr Beattie said the importance of Moreton Bay as a recreational and environmental resource for southeast Queensland could not be underestimated, particularly as the population increased. “My government has the future of Moreton Bay as a key priority, and takes its stewardship role very seriously indeed,” he said. Tangalooma Resort manager Trevor Hassard also welcomed the decision and called on the Government to rezone Moreton Bay to protect it from any similar proposals. “Whales, dugongs and dolphins make the bay a drawcard for tourists from all over,” Mr Hassard said. “It’s a sanctuary for marine life and over 50,000 shore birds.”

Maltese fish farms harm dive tourism

Whilst tourists and wildlife may have won the battle of Moreton Bay in Australia, tourism in Malta is being threatened by the expansion of tuna farming. The Times of Malta (26th August) reported that “the damage being caused to the sea by fish farms and tuna pens is incredible”. According to Alex Buttigieg, who is in charge of diving at the Octopus Garden Dive Centre, in St Paul’s Bay: “It is a pity that the government cannot see what’s happening under the sea. I am offering to teach ministers and MPs how to dive and take them to see for themselves the extent of this damage and the harm these farms are inflicting on dive tourism”. Mr Buttigieg said the company he works for has been experiencing a dramatic dive in bookings for the past three years, with this year registering a drop of 70 per cent.

“Through the waste generated by the tuna pens off Qawra, the fish life on the reef close by is disappearing at an alarming rate,” continued Mr Buttigieg. “Since three years ago, the visibility has deteriorated badly falling from 50 metres to 10. On the other hand, the sea by St Paul's islands where fish farms are sited and which used to be 22 metres deep is now only 15 metres deep because of the build-up of sludge. The visibility there used to be about 58 metres but now it is down to 25 metres. Dive centres complain regularly about this negative impact but the authorities take no notice”.

Mr Buttigieg is in favour of asking dive tourists for a donation to go towards the enhancement of diving in the area but also wants the Maltese government to protect the marine environment from the advance of sea cages. “I cannot ask clients for a donation for this purpose if divers are taken to sites that are devoid of fish life or are filthy with waste from fish farms and the sea is smeared by a slick of tuna oil. The country has to show first it is taking the steps to improve the quality of its product,” Mr Buttigieg told the Times of Malta.

Aquaculture Europe 2004 goes big on GM

Delegates heading to Barcelona in Spain for the Aquaculture Europe 2004 conference “Biotechnologies for Quality” (October 20-23), will be up to their gills in GM fish. Sponsored by the European Society for Marine Biotechnology, papers presented at Aquaculture Europe 2004 include: “What can biotechnology bring to aquaculture?” by R. Colwell of the John Hopkins University School of Public Health, US; “Biotechnology and quality in European aquaculture - the role of community research programmes” by L. Bochereau of the European Commission in Brussels; “Biotechnology offers revolution in fish health management” by S. Adams of the University of Stirling, UK; “Scientific and social factors influencing utility of transgenic fish for aquaculture” by B. Devlin of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and “Biotechnology and quality of fish as food” by M. Berntssen, G.I. Hemre and Ø. Lie of the National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research at the Univ. of Bergen in Norway.

Certain to be a hot topic of conversation will be all the latest developments in transgenic technology. “Salmon give birth to trout,” reported the scientific journal Nature (4th August). “Japanese researchers have pioneered a breeding technique that allows salmon to father baby trout,” wrote Michael Hopkin. “The method could potentially revolutionize fish-farming and even resurrect extinct species, they claim. The researchers managed to create male salmon that produce sperm of a closely related trout species.

When used to fertilize trout eggs, the sperm produced perfectly healthy young trout, report Goro Yoshizaki and his colleagues at the University of Marine Sciences and Technology in Tokyo”. According to Nature: “It is the first time that transplanted PGCs from one species have successfully produced offspring through a surrogate parent of another species, says Yoshizaki”. Japanese researchers are now looking at mass producing mackerel to act as surrogate mothers for endangered species such as bluefin tuna and even sturgeon. Whatever next? Will mad scientists clone Dolly the Sheep and bring her back from the dead to act as a surrogate mother for GM salmon? In the brave new world of 21st Century Fish, scientific fact can be stranger than fiction.

One development that has already taken place, at least in field trials in Norway, is the use of GM soya to feed farmed salmon. The journal Aquaculture reported in August that scientists at the National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research in Norway and University of Greenwich in the UK had conducted experiments using GM soya to find out if it could still be detected in the flesh of farmed salmon. The paper – “The fate of transgenic sequences present in genetically modified plant products in fish feed, investigating the survival of GM soybean DNA fragments during feeding trials in Atlantic salmon” – concluded that “GM soy transgenic sequences may survive passage through the GI tract but that they cannot be traced in fish tissues”.

Lax labelling laws may therefore mean that unsuspecting consumers will be eating genetically modified farmed salmon without knowing about it. What is clear is that the salmon farming industry is intent on force-feeding us all GM salmon. “For each month that goes by it’s becoming more difficult and dearer to hold the fort,” said Kjell Bjordal, Managing Director of the Norwegian-owned Ewos Group, in August 2003. “Genetically modified raw materials from the agricultural segment are increasing at an alarming rate. It will be increasingly difficult to obtain raw materials on the global market that are guaranteed free of any trace of GMO”. For consumers wishing to avoid the labelling lottery, the only sure-fire way of avoiding GM products is to boycott farmed salmon full stop.

Bon Appetit boycotts farmed salmon

Bon Appetit Management Co., which serves a million meals each week at on-site restaurants at more than 150 corporations, has stunned salmon farmers by snubbing farmed salmon on their menus. “If we can’t get wild salmon, we don’t serve salmon, it’s that simple,” CEO Fedele Bauccio told the Associated Press. “We’ve done enough focus group studies to realize that people are willing to pay a little bit more for something that’s better”. Only wild salmon is to be served from now on. “It’s the difference between night and day,” said Joe McGarry, a Bon Appetit employee who has been the executive chef of Oregon’s Intel campus for the past seven years.

Bon Appetit’s decision to boycott farmed salmon is yet another scalp for the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform’s “Farmed and Dangerous” campaign. Bon Appetit joins a growing list of restaurants and retailers who have pledged not to serve farmed salmon.

But it is not just NGOs who can make a real difference. The Alaskan radio station KINY reported (30th August) how an Alaskan student at a college in the US convinced the school to switch to using all wild salmon instead of farmed salmon. Camille Padilla of Middlebury College in Vermont contacted the Seafood Producers Cooperative and put them in contact with school officials, who cut a deal to buy 25,000 pounds of fresh and frozen salmon fillets for its 2,350 students.

“We found that the pricing direct was not much more than what we were paying for farmed salmon,” Matthew Biette, Middlebury’s director of dining, told KINY. “It’s part of the whole idea of fair trade and sustainability. We now have a link to this small Alaska community, and even though it’s far away, it fits well into our overall game plan.” Padilla, a Sitka native, hopes publicity will prompt other schools to make the choice to go wild. Bon Appetit!

Alaska in the firing line

In view of all the sea lice emanating from salmon farms (not to mention mass escapes, infectious diseases, toxic chemicals, carcinogenic contaminants and untreated sewage effluent), it is no surprise that Alaskans are up in arms over plans by Norwegian-owned multinational Pan Fish to expand into the northern waters of British Columbia. It is one thing fouling your own nest but polluting someone else’s backyard is another matter entirely.

Alaska State Governor Frank Murkowski is now asking the U.S. Department of Commerce for a five-year moratorium on new finfish farming and for other concessions before considering any changes to encourage aquaculture in federal waters. “In Alaska, coastal communities have traditionally lived off the bountiful fish resources of our sea and marine finfish farming threatens that livelihood as well as consumer confidence in wild Alaska salmon,” Murkowski said in a press release.

In August, the Canadian government approved the first salmon farm on BC’s north coast, located just south of Prince Rupert (some 100 miles from the U.S. border). The fish farm site at Anger Anchorage (holding up to a million fish in 18 pens) and the other proposed sites are located along eight significant wild salmon migration routes, including the southern migration route to BC’s second largest wild salmon river, the Skeena. Pan Fish Canada, in partnership with the Kitkatla First Nation, is proposing at least ten sites for BC’s northern region. Pan Fish CEO Atle Eide told Intrafish (24th August) that they would not be expanding these sites, yet. “No fish will be released into cages. We don’t have management capacity, and certainly don’t have the funds to do it,” said Eide. Pan Fish said the licences were like a Lotto prize that would be cashed into at a later date.

Not everyone is happy at Pan Fish hitting the lottery jackpot though. “I am concerned about the potential danger that farmed Atlantic salmon present to Alaska’s wild salmon stocks,” said Kevin Duffy, commissioner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Alaska’s economy relies heavily upon wild salmon and we need to make sure that our neighbor’s activities do not have an adverse impact on Alaska’s fisheries.” Alaska has every reason to be concerned. Infectious Hematopoietic Necrosis has decimated Pan Fish Canada’s farms to such an extent that mortality rates are ca. 60-70%. And the flesh-eating parasite, kudoa, caused losses of $14 million in sales revenue alone in 2002.

According to Canoe News (20th August): “Aquaculture industry claims the farms are needed to satisfy demand for salmon don’t wash with Alaska. The state says its wild stocks are thriving. They have already been disturbed by farmed Atlantic salmon that have escaped from B.C. operations further south and U.S. biologists don't want the added threat of a farm on the north coast. “We're fine with wild fish,” said Glen Oliver, a research supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Stocks are abundant.

We have good management so survival rates are good and returns have been high over the past few years. So we don't want farmed species that might compete with them”. An Editorial in the Bellingham Herald (19th August) raised the prospect of a border dispute between the US and Canada: “Fish don’t recognize boundaries. Neither do the parasites they carry. While some Alaskans may be open to the idea of fish farming because it could generate jobs, they must also consider the jobs that would be eliminated if farmed fish cause a disease outbreak that kills off wild fish”.

Writing in The Daily News (24th August), Des Nobels of the T. Buck Suzuki Foundation, said: “It never ceases to amaze me, the level of blind stupidity to which governments’ will stoop in the pursuit of revenue. That government requires money to operate is understandable, but to sell off our environment and short change our children is unforgivable. I and many others will record this event as infamy, lacking in foresight and a complete betrayal of our trust”.

Nutreco and Stolt “mega merger”

Cash-strapped Dutch multinational Nutreco (owners of Marine Harvest) is merging with Norwegian-American company Stolt Nielson. The new company will operate under the name Marine Harvest and will annual sales of €1 billion will become “the undisputed world leader in aquaculture”. According to Nutreco (13th September), Marine Harvest “will also become the unrivalled world leader in other aquaculture novel species such as cod, halibut, sturgeon, tilapia, barramundi and yellowtail”.

The “mega merger” is a marriage made in hell - both Nutreco and Stolt are guilty of environmental and public health abuses across the world. Nutreco, for example, have been fined for the illegal use of malachite green in Chile and Marine Harvest Scotland are to be named and shamed in a new report on malachite green contaminated released soon by the UK authorities (see “Chilean salmon contaminated with malachite green – again”). And last year in Maine, USA, Stolt was “found liable for violating the Clean Water Act by discharging a variety of pollutants - including non-native fish that escape from the farms, huge amounts of fish waste and excess feed, and drugs and toxic chemicals - without permits”. Stolt were also the company involved in bringing down BC Fisheries Minister John van Dongen in 2003.

Nutreco is currently embroiled in expensive legal action and desperately needs a cash injection. A mediation meeting in mid-August between Nutreco and Lafjord USA failed to reach an agreement in a dispute stemming from alleged short-weighing of smoked farmed salmon to wholesaler Costco. Given the contaminants, artificial colourings and illegal chemicals in farmed salmon these days you might think that being short-changed was a cause for celebration rather than a case for the courts. A trial is now expected sometime in early 2005 with Lafjord USA believed to be demanding up to $10 million in damages from Nutreco.

More bad news came at the end of August when Nutreco announced that Marine Harvest Norway more than doubled its losses from 2002 to 2003. Marine Harvest Norway has lost NOK 844.2 million before tax in just three years while its debt is soaring toward NOK 1.7 billion. With disease losses in Canada and ongoing problems in Scotland, Nutreco Aquaculture’s earnings before taxes and financial items amounted to €4.0 million, a decrease of €5.6 million compared with the first-half 2003 figure of €9.6 million.

Marine Harvest Europe’s business group managing director Bill Kuckuck will not be around to see how the new Marine Harvest performs – he left in August. When he was appointed in 2003, Kuckuck pledged to develop seafood products appetising in appearance, taste and aroma. “The retailers’ customers should feel hungry whenever they see a Marine Harvest product”, he said. A year later it seems he has lost his appetite for farmed salmon.

Flame retardants turn up the heat

Salmon farmers are feeling hot under the collar after the publication in early August of a new scientific study - “Global assessment of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in farmed and wild salmon”. The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (10th August), concludes that farmed salmon in Europe and North America have higher average levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (more commonly known as flame retardants) than do wild salmon. Flame retardants, used in products from electronics to upholstery, are similar to PCBs, chemicals linked to cancer and nervous-system disorders in humans.

The study’s authors analyzed the same set of 700 farmed and wild salmon collected from around the world that was also the basis for highly publicized research published in January in the journal Science (see February International News). “Farm-raised salmon have higher levels of these compounds than wild salmon,” the study said. “Farm-raised salmon from Europe have higher PBDE levels than those raised in North America, and that both European and North American farm-raised salmon have higher PBDE levels than those raised in Chile”.

“This study demonstrates the importance of labeling salmon as farmed and identifying its country of origin,” said lead author Professor Ron Hites, distinguished professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “This really adds a little bit more support to the previous study that you really ought to watch where your salmon is coming from”. Consumers in the United States will now get the opportunity to decide for themselves – this month it became law to label whether salmon was farmed or wild (it became law in the European Union in 2002).

Salmon farmer’s temperature could be raised to boiling point by another study, led by Professor Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas School of Public Health-Dallas, to be published in October. “A soon-to-be-released study on polybrominated diphenyls (PBDEs) on a ‘food basket’ of 32 grocery store-bought items will report similar results - that salmon had the highest levels of PBDE among the foods tested and that farmed salmon had higher PBDE levels, on average, than wild salmon” reported Intrafish (13th August). Flame grilled farmed salmon anyone?