Killer Salmon

Farm-raised Atlantic salmon are spreading disease and genetic weakness throughout Puget Sound and threatening to destroy native salmon in the process.

Veteran gillnetter Pete Knutson has hauled countless salmon out of Puget Sound since he began plying the local waters in 1972. So imagine his surprise one night in 1992, when up came a dozen Atlantic salmon—easily distinguishable from the native species by the large dark splotches on their gill covers. As their name suggests, these fish should have been cruising North Atlantic waters; Knutson caught them in Seattle’s Elliott Bay.

With native salmon on the wane, you might think Knutson was happy to find another breed of salmon to catch. You’d be dead wrong. When he mentions Atlantic salmon, Knutson’s voice takes on the same disgusted tone Seattleites use to discuss transplanted California real estate developers: “They’re like goldfish.”

Knutson and his fellow adepts regard Atlantics as inferior because they come not from nature but from floating fish feedlots—one of the net-pen “farms” around Puget Sound. Salmon farmers raise Atlantic salmon because they grow faster and fatter in captivity and are more docile than our native salmon.

Aquaculture proponents tout salmon farming in general as an economic opportunity for depressed coastal communities. The industry’s critics, however, argue that salmon aquaculture has created a worldwide glut of salmon, lowering profits and stealing market share from commercial fishermen. “They’ve really pushed the entire [commercial salmon] industry to the brink,” says Knutson, who is now a full-time sociology professor and only part-time salmon fisherman.

But commercial competition is the least of opponents’ concerns. Fish farms are messy operations that dump waste into Puget Sound, and escaped fish are like “smart bombs,” says Knutson, delivering disease, predation, and competition “right into the bedrooms of wild salmon.” If there’s one thing our already hammered wild fish don’t need, say critics of the farms, it’s another salmon-killing industry. But the farms are well entrenched here, and they’re looking to expand.

Breeding Pestilence and Pollution

“[Salmon farming] will lead to the destruction of wild salmon here,” says David Ellis, executive director of the British Columbiabased Fish for Life Foundation, a strident antisalmon farming group. A former commercial fisherman turned fisheries consultant and wild salmon advocate, Ellis has led the charge against salmon farming in British Columbia, which has as many as 149 salmon net pens floating off its coast. His 1996 net loss report for the David Suzuki Foundation described a host of ecological impacts and risks from farming Atlantic salmon, including the generation of huge amounts of fish feces, disease transmission, antibiotic and chemical use, and conflicts with marine mammals. Pens are typically 30 by 30 meters, 20 meters deep, and made of steel with nylon mesh. A farm may contain as many as 26 pens surrounding a catwalk—an arrangement making it relatively easy to feed, monitor, and harvest the fish. Larger farms hold several hundred thousand salmon at a time.

Worldwide, salmon aquaculture is rapidly expanding, with farm production in 1997 outpacing wild salmon harvest for the first time—a consequence both of industry growth and declining wild runs. The opposite trends are no coincidence, according to Ellis, who is convinced that wild stocks suffer wherever salmon farms are established. Norway’s wild salmon and sea trout have withered as diseases like furunculosis and sea lice have spread from salmon farms to native fish. Norway’s plight is so desperate, in fact, that officials there have poisoned more than 24 rivers with the piscicide rotenone in hopes of cleansing them of farm-bred diseases. Likewise, the collapse of Ireland’s west coast sea trout fishery and the decline of Scotland’s salmon and sea trout populations have been linked to diseases spread by marine net pens.

“The greatest danger by far is disease,” says Ellis. Atlantics host pathogens for which Pacific salmon lack immunity, he says. Exotic diseases have the ability to spread rapidly among the natives just as smallpox decimated many American Indian communities with the advent of European immigration. Salmon farms also amplify indigenous fish diseases—native pathogens can multiply in the stressful, crowded pens and eventually infect wild salmon swimming by. Ellis confirmed seven major outbreaks of Pacific Coast salmon diseases at BC salmon farms in the past decade. In at least two instances documented by orca researcher Alexandra Morton, outbreaks spread to local salmon swimming home to a community enhancement hatchery on the Broughton Archipelago. Following a 1991 outbreak of the bacterial disease furunculosis at a nearby net pen, returning hatchery fish developed the disease and mortality jumped from 3 percent to 28 percent. Two years later, an outbreak of a unique strain of antibiotic-resistant furunculosis also showed up in the hatchery fish, whose migration route brought them past the infested farm.

British Columbia’s problem is our problem, too, as Puget Sound salmon regularly swim past fish farms in the Strait of Georgia on their migration home.

Escapes are inevitable, says Ellis, boosting chances that farm-reared diseases will infiltrate local stocks. In Norway, approximately 1.3 million farm fish escape each year. British Columbia farms lose between 60,000 and 120,000 Atlantics annually. Escapes also raise the threat of Atlantic salmon establishing themselves in local watersheds and competing with already stressed local fish.

Predators see salmon farms as irresistible all-you-can-eat dives with free admission, and their constant visitation sets up seals, dogfish, great blue herons, kingfishers, and other birds for retribution from salmon farmers. Harbor seals cause more than $10 million in annual losses to the BC farmed-salmon industry, and its farmers regularly kill problem seals. In the US, there were 51,000 authorized bird kills at US aquaculture operations between 1989 and 1993. “When you put a farm into a wild environment, suddenly all the wild creatures become weeds and pests,” warns Pete Knutson.

Marine net pens also treat the wild as a dumping ground, says Arthur Whiteley, a University of Washington emeritus professor of zoology and board member of the Marine Environmental Consortium (MEC). Unlike cities or land-based farms, he says, “Fish farmers release [their waste] directly to the Sound,” killing bottom life and contributing to toxic phytoplankton blooms. Antibiotics and other feed additives also enter the water, to be consumed by local marine life.

Clashing over Salmon Farming

Whiteley’s group, along with the Washington Environmental Council and Earthjustice, have challenged state net pen regulations before the Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB). The groups claim that Department of Ecologyissued permits for 12 Puget Sound salmon farms fail to address the issue of escaped farm salmon, diseases, and antibiotic use, and don’t set adequate limits on farm waste. During the appeal’s first phase, the PCHB ruled that Atlantic salmon are a “biological pollutant” under the Clean Water Act. That would seem to lump farm fish together with nasty alien immigrants like Spartina, an East Coast cordgrass infesting Willapa Bay, and the Japanese oyster drill, which attacks local shellfish. Despite the initial ruling, though, the PCHB has yet to decide whether it will change state net-pen regulations. That decision is expected later this year.

Atlantic salmon may be biological pollutants in the eyes of the PCHB, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmful to the environment, says state Sen. Dan Swecker, an aquaculture pioneer and executive director of the Washington Fish Growers Association. “If you use [environmentalists’] definition of biological pollutant, that means that white people can’t go swimming in the water,” he reasons. “We’re non-native and we’re biological.” Swecker says environmentalists are just picking on salmon farms because they don’t want net pens intruding into their view of Puget Sound. “It’s obvious harassment” hidden “behind a cloak of environmentalism,” he says. “To date, nobody has demonstrated any negative impacts with Atlantic salmon in Washington waters.”

Disease outbreaks in Puget Sound net pens are caused by native marine pathogens, says Pete Granger, executive director of the Washington Farmed Salmon Commission. Washington salmon farmers rely on locally grown brood stocks, reducing the possibility of imported exotic diseases. “We’re putting disease-free fish into the water,” says Granger—although he does acknowledge that net pens can amplify native diseases.

Granger dismisses environmentalists’ claims about net pen waste and antibiotics as (to employ a thematically appropriate metaphor) red herrings. Antibiotic use is declining with the advent of new salmon vaccines, and fish farm waste pales in comparison with the threat of human sewage flowing into the Sound. “There’s no question that right below the pens there is damage,” he concedes. “It kills everything but a few critters.” But altogether, local fish farms cover only 50 acres. “It’d take an enormous amount of salmon farmers before there would be any impact.”

Even if the current acreage is small, though, environmentalists argue that salmon farms cause unacceptable damage to an already stressed Puget Sound. “Why aren’t these point pollution sources placed in areas [where they won’t harm the Sound]?” asks MEC board member Barbara Stenson. “Other farmed fish are all raised in contained environments on land.”

Salmon farmers agree that Atlantics could be raised in land-based tanks; however, they add, such operations couldn’t compete with marine net pen farms in BC, Norway, and Chile. The PCHB sided with salmon farmers on this point. Earlier this year, the board threw out part of the environmentalists’ suit that asked the state to require land-based fish farms.

Strait into Trouble? (or Can’t Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm)

For their part, Puget Sound fish farmers would rather go in the other direction, moving farther out to sea. Washington’s industry is limited to its current size of eight active farms by a tough regulatory environment and “aesthetic concerns,” explains Sen. Swecker. More than 1.5 million acres of saltwater is available to net pens, he says, but opposition to salmon farms makes the permitting process too onerous. Swecker hopes that getting away from shore will reduce resistance. Last year, he sponsored legislation funding a feasibility study for siting state-of-the-art open-ocean net pens in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Globally, he explains, salmon aquaculture is moving toward these “open-ocean technologies,” allowing for larger farms that are less visible to the public. “For companies to compete [globally], much larger operations have to be developed,” he says. And the Strait may be just the place to grow.

Rough waters and shipping traffic in the Strait, however, would likely exacerbate the local industry’s most vexing problem—escapes. Despite the industry’s small size, local salmon farms have lost an inordinate number of fish. In 1996, 105,000 Atlantics busted loose, and the following year, another 368,000 high-finned it away from a Bainbridge Island farm being towed to avoid a toxic plankton bloom. These well-publicized breakouts have heightened concern that farmed Atlantics will establish themselves in local rivers, competing with wild salmon for food and spawning grounds, dining on wild salmon eggs and juvenile fish, and possibly interbreeding with the locals.

Not to worry, says the Farmed Salmon Commission’s Granger. Farmed fish are domesticated, and Pacific Coast conditions are too harsh for the eastern anadroms. Granger points out that 5 million Atlantic eggs and smolts were planted on the West Coast in the first half of the century in hopes of establishing a new game fishery, and Atlantics were unable to get a finhold in Pacific watersheds.

A 1990 state-sponsored scientific assessment determined that it was “very, very unlikely” that escaped Atlantic salmon could spawn in Washington streams, according to panel member Terry Wright, manager of Enhancement Services with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “The chances of interbreeding,” he adds, “are so close to zero as being ridiculous.” Monitoring of streams and rivers by the Department of Fish and Wildlife has found Atlantic salmon in most major Puget Sound drainages, says agency official Kevin Amis, but there’s no evidence they’re spawning or eating wild stocks. When caught, Atlantics generally appear skinny and in poor condition, suggesting they’re not eating in the wild, says Amis’ colleague, Dave Seiler. “They don’t appear to be very capable fish.” With this in mind, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has taken a low-key approach to fish farm fugitives. Seiler says that the department has worked with salmon farming corporations to strengthen net pens. The agency’s prime weapon, however, is to sic salmon-hungry anglers on the fleeing fish.

Making Themselves at Home

While Fish and Wildlife is content to winnow escaped populations through sports fishing, what happens to the fish that don’t get caught? Nobody really knows. Assuming that they won’t go native may be wishful thinking, however, according to former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Jolene Unsoeld. “Fish, like much of nature, have an adaptive capacity,” she says.

Evidence of that adaptability is abundant. Farmed Atlantics have colonized Chilean rivers, casting doubt on assurances that Atlantics can’t make a go of it on this coast. Escaped Atlantics have been caught as far north as Alaska, according to Pete Knutson, suggesting that at least some of them can survive in the Pacific. And what they’re eating is worrisome. An Atlantic salmon caught in the Elwha River in 1996 had gorged itself on chinook eggs. Another, caught in the Skykomish River that year, had a baby rainbow trout in its belly.

The failure of Atlantics to find a niche in the past doesn’t necessarily limit their future chances. Past efforts to establish Atlantics involved planting eggs and smolts in healthy rivers teeming with wild Pacific salmon. The decline of native stocks has opened ecological niches that simply weren’t there in the past. And most of the Atlantics escaping from farms are mature adults, better suited than young salmon for colonizing. Nor do the supposedly domesticated Atlantic salmon shut off their sex drives, according to University of British Columbia biologist John Volpe, one of the few scientists to actually study what farm fish do in the wild. Earlier this year, Volpe put 50 Atlantic salmon from a BC farm into a local stream, where “they immediately began building nests in the gravel” and laying eggs.

Closer to home, fresh-off-the-farm Atlantic salmon also seem to want a permanent place in our streams. Last year, while capturing brood stock in a channel of the Elwha River, Elwha tribal biologist Doug Morrill came upon a mature female Atlantic. “She was heavy with eggs,” he recalls. “When I picked her up, a multitude of eggs came streaming out of her. We didn’t see any males nearby, but there very well could’ve been.” And should Atlantic salmon indeed be spawning in Puget Sound watersheds, they’ve got a decided advantage over resident salmonids. Unlike Pacific species that spawn and die, Atlantic salmon spawn as many as six times before becoming river fertilizer.

Ignoring the Problem

If Atlantic salmon farming is the threat portrayed by its opponents, you couldn’t tell by its absence from the political agenda. Very few environmental groups and (Pete Knutson’s efforts aside) few fishermen are up in arms about Atlantic salmon. Government agencies from state Fish and Wildlife up to the National Marine Fisheries Service consider net pens a non-threat. Salmon farmer Swecker, a powerful Republican and past co-chair of the Legislature’s salmon recovery task force, thinks we should “release some of them every year on purpose.”

Perhaps this is just a sign of the sorry state of salmon politics. After all, the region ignored more than two decades of warning signs that our way of life was driving native salmon to that spawning bed in the sky. And despite all the political blather about saving wild salmon, it’s a fair question whether we have the political fortitude to do what’s needed: restrict logging; protect and restore wetlands; reduce water use; preserve open space and restrict development; create less pollution for Puget Sound and its drainages; and—hardest of all—voluntarily limit economic and population growth. Salmon farming may be just the latest in a series of willfully ignored threats to wild salmon.

This is made all the worse by the state’s longstanding preference for artificial salmon production, says Pete Knutson. Saving wild salmon means stopping habitat destruction, while promoting salmon farms and hatcheries is a way of saying, “You can go ahead and log and pave and still have your salmon, too.”

It would appear that this is the course the Northwest is on. Consider these disturbing numbers about Puget Sound chinook, our endangered species-in-waiting: Before World War I, local watersheds supported a returning annual population of somewhere around 700,000 wild chinook. In the past two years, fewer than 50,000 have returned to local rivers and streams, while nearly half a million Atlantic salmon have left their farms for the greater Puget Sound. Yes, you still can have your salmon, too, but the native ones are going fast.

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