Volume 5, No. 3

Promoting Cooperation to Maintain and Enhance
Environmental Quality in the Gulf of Maine

Fall 2001
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Maine salmon farmers, conservationists sign pact

By Andi Rierden, editor

After years of political and legal battles, Maine's salmon conservation groups and salmon farmers signed an agreement in May to reduce the number of farm-raised salmon that escape into the state's waters, potentially harming wild fish. The pact was signed by salmon farmers represented by the Maine Aquaculture Association, Atlantic Salmon of Maine, Heritage Salmon and Stolt Sea Farms, and three environmental groups, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Conservation Law Foundation and Trout Unlimited.

Under the agreement, fish farms must develop plans to contain their fish, the plans must be made available to regulators and farm practices must undergo annual audits by an independent expert.

"We decided to put our disagreements behind us in order to focus on a proactive, collaborative effort to improve the containment of farmed salmon," said Jeff Reardon, New England director for Trout Unlimited.

The conservation groups have long called for controls to help eliminate escapes by farmed salmon, which can compete with wild salmon and threaten native stocks through interbreeding or disease, such as infectious salmon anemia. Last December, 100,000 farmed fish escaped into Machias Bay after high winds wrecked a steel cage. The state did not make the accident public until seven weeks later, drawing harsh criticism from environmentalists.

Wild Atlantic salmon in eight Maine rivers were listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) last year. Five of the rivers are in Washington County, which is home to most of the state's commercial salmon farms. The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the threats posed to wild fish by salmon farms as one of the reasons for the listing decision.

Maine filed a suit early this year contesting the listing, stating that a century of stocking non-native fish has diluted any wild stocks that may have existed. The suit also states that the listing will cripple the state's blueberry, aquaculture and forest industries with costly regulations.

Litigation aside, salmon farmers and conservation groups agree that the pact has the potential for significant progress in creating an economically and environmentally sustainable aquaculture industry. "From the viewpoint of Maine's salmon farmers, we see this agreement as a way to streamline and stabilize regulations pertaining to these issues," said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.

"In addition, we anticipate increased review for those companies not in compliance."

The Maine Aquaculture Association will use a $500,000 grant from a $5 million appropriation from the U.S. Congress for Atlantic salmon to research effective salmon tagging techniques, to create a computer-based system to monitor escaped aquaculture salmon and to develop improved containment systems for fish farms.

Salmon farmers and conservationists are working with state and federal agencies to complete the policy in hopes that it will form the basis for future regulations the agencies decide are necessary to help wild Atlantic salmon recover in Maine.

While the agreement by itself does not address all of the concerns of the environmental community or industry, it signifies a leap forward, say its supporters.

"We view this as one of the critical components needed to begin to objectively and scientifically assess the real level of risk our farms may present to the restoration of sea run salmon," Belle said.

(Canada's Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife, a nonregulatory committee, announced in May that wild Atlantic salmon in 33 inner Bay of Fundy rivers needed to be protected under an endangered species listing. For background see Boates, and the Gulf of Maine Times, March 2001.)