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Farmed Salmon Pose Risks to Consumers and Environment


The New York Times
May 28, 2003
Farmed Salmon Looking Less Rosy
By MARIAN BURROS

HE images of salmon farming that the industry promotes seem pristine and
natural, of fish frisking in icy cold clean waters, of wise management
saving an endangered species while providing shoppers with the fish they
love.

But critics say that image of the regal salmon, America's most popular fresh
fish, is not the whole reality. Recent lawsuits accuse the industry of
polluting the ocean, endangering dwindling stocks of wild salmon and failing
to tell shoppers that they use artificial colors to make the fish red.

The criticisms echo many of those leveled at huge corporate farms on land.

"We've come to the point where we view these farms as hog lots or feedlots
of the ocean," said Jeff Reardon, the New England conservation director of
Trout Unlimited, which has worked with salmon farmers in Maine to reduce the
number of fish that escape, to protect wild trout and salmon. "They breed
disease and parasites. Like other big animal feedlots there are lots of
problems. Some of their practices are beginning to improve, but over all the
impact is not lessening."

Industry officials say that some problems have been dealt with and that
critics exaggerate others.

"Mistakes were made originally, but to damn the industry on the basis of the
early years is unfair," said Des Fitzgerald, the former chief executive of
Atlantic Salmon of Maine. "I would never suggest there are no pollution
problems." He added, "I maintain that salmon farms that are well run leave
very little pollution."

Last week, a judge in Maine accused one of the largest salmon farming
operations in the country of putting its profits ahead of environmental
concerns, and of violating an order not to stock its pens with more fish
until those concerns were addressed. Earlier this month, a group of Indian
tribes in Canada sued salmon farmers in British Columbia, accusing them of
practices that have killed millions of wild salmon. And last month, markets
around the country began scurrying to relabel their farmed salmon after a
class-action lawsuit in Washington State accused retailers of failing to
tell shoppers that artificial color was added to fish feed.

As wild salmon have grown more scarce, the industry has increasingly used
pens in coastal waters to raise salmon, growing them twice as quickly as
fish in the wild. Eighty percent of the salmon sold in the United States
were raised on farms.

While all salmon in the store may look similar, the Department of
Agriculture says farmed salmon contains almost twice the total fat, more
than twice the saturated fat and fewer beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than
wild salmon.

Last month, consumers learned about another difference, when the
class-action lawsuit in Washington called attention to the little-known fact
that farmed salmon are not naturally salmon pink or red, and that if they
were not fed artificial colors they would range from gray or khaki to pale
yellow or pale pink. Wild salmon turn pink from the krill and shrimp they
eat. (Farmed salmon eat a fishmeal diet.) The lawsuit accused three
supermarket chains of violating Food and Drug Administration regulations by
not telling shoppers that farmed salmon were artificially colored, thus
leading them to think they were buying wild fish.

The federal government says that local officials are supposed to enforce the
labeling law, but that until now no one has bothered to do so. Since the
lawsuit was filed, the chains, Safeway, Albertsons and the Kroger Company,
which have 6,000 stores in more than 30 states, have said they would label
the fish. Whole Foods, the largest natural food chain, said it is following
the label rules now.

In New York, an official for Food Emporium said the information is being
added to labels but is not necessarily in the stores yet. Officials at
Gristede's and D'Agostino say labeling is under discussion. The owners of
Citarella and Central Fish Market said they did not know about the
requirement.

Hoffmann-La Roche, one company that makes the dyes, canthaxanthin and the
more expensive astaxanthin, from petrochemicals, offers salmon farmers the
SalmoFan, a sort of paint wheel with assorted shades of pink, to help them
create the color they think their customers want.

The Washington State lawsuit does not address whether the chemicals are
harmful. But European Union officials are reducing the permissible levels of
canthaxanthin in fish and poultry from 80 parts per million per kilogram of
feed < the levels permitted in this country < to 25 parts per million
because there is some concern that high levels may cause retinal damage. In
Canada the permissible level is 30 parts per million.

The F.D.A. has concluded that 80 parts per million would not damage the eye..

While the lawsuit says farmed salmon have more antibiotics and pesticides
than wild salmon, environmentalists and the farmed salmon industry agree
that antibiotic use has been drastically reduced. The two sides disagree,
however, about the amount of pesticides and other contaminants.

In a pilot study conducted in 2000 by Dr. Michael Easton of International
EcoGenInc in British Columbia, a company that specializes in the effects of
contaminants and pollutants on animals, found that farmed salmon had
"consistently higher levels" of toxic contaminants compared with wild
salmon, including 10 times the level of PCB's. PCB's are far more
concentrated in fish feed, particularly in the fish oil added to the feed,
than in the natural diet of the fish. The findings were reported in 2002 in
Chemosphere, a peer-reviewed international environmental journal, and the
study was paid for by the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental group.
The findings have been confirmed in several larger studies, including one by
the University of Surrey in England, reported in the peer-reviewed journal
Environmental Science and Technology.

Contaminants and pollutants are at the center of a lawsuit filed in Maine in
2000 by the National Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit center dedicated
to enforcing antipollution laws.

The lawsuit accused Maine's three largest salmon farms of operating without
the permits the Clean Water Act requires of companies that intend to add
pollutants to navigable waters. For years, neither the federal or state
government got around to issuing the permits. The Environmental Protection
Agency acknowledged that it had no idea of the extent of the pollution, from
waste, pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals, in the early days of
salmon farming. In 2000, Maine took over the permitting process and was
given a year to come up with final rules, a process it is only now
completing.

The lawsuit also charges that the companies have degraded the water with
fish waste, uneaten feed and the toxic chemicals used to kill pests and
protect nets. The typical fish farm in Maine has 250,000 fish in about 20
pens. Each pen produces about two metric tons of waste, a volume of waste
that surpasses that of a small city, according to Josh Kratka, a senior
lawyer with the National Environmental Law Center.

Sebastian Bell, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association,
a trade group, said: "Aquaculture is in the cross hairs" because well-heeled
people who live on the coast where there are several salmon farms are also
environmentalists. "Do we have a lot to learn? You betcha. Are we as bad as
our critics say? Absolutely not."

The suit also says the companies continued to stock their pens with European
salmon even after they were told not to, to prevent interbreeding. Many of
these farmed salmon escape and compete for food and habitat, further
weakening the tiny population of wild Atlantic salmon that are on the
endangered species list in Maine. Two years ago, 100,000 farmed salmon
escaped from Atlantic Salmon of Maine, one of the firms being sued. But the
companies say they now have better safeguards in place.

Steve Page, the environmental compliance officer for Atlantic Salmon, said,
"Every one of these situations has been remediated."

He disagreed with the scientists, including those from the Fish and Wildlife
Service, who say the European salmon that escape weaken wild Atlantic salmon
stocks through interbreeding. He said that interbreeding instead strengthens
the wild salmon.

One of the three companies, Heritage Salmon, owned by George Weston, a
Canadian firm, settled the lawsuit, paying a $375,000 penalty that is
financing salmon restoration projects. The company agreed to limit the
discharge of toxic chemicals and excess feed and to grow only North American
strains of salmon.

Judge Gene Carter of the United States District Court in Portland, Me.,
ruled in June 2002 that the two other companies, Atlantic Salmon, owned by
Fjord Seafood of Norway, the third-largest aquaculture company in the world,
and Stolt Sea Farm, owned by Stolt-Nielsen of Norway, had illegally
discharged pollutants without a permit. Judge Carter is expected to decide
on penalties this week.

In February, Judge Carter ordered Atlantic Salmon not to restock its pens
with new fish until he decided the case, but they did anyway. On May 9, he
held the company in contempt of court. "It is the court's perception that
A.S.M.'s leadership has single-mindedly pursued a policy, in the interests
of the company's economic well-being and future profitability, of
frustrating the fruition of all efforts by the regulatory authorities, such
as they have been, and by this Court to secure and ensure its compliance
with" the Clean Water Act, the judge said in a later ruling, rejecting the
company's request to delay an injunction on restocking.

Last Wednesday, the company decided to drop its appeal and try to settle out
of court.

The State of Maine, meanwhile, is expected to introduce new rules for fish
farming permits that prohibit the introduction of the European strains and
require the marking of farmed fish, to track them when they escape. Details
are being worked on.

In April, in British Columbia, a lawsuit was filed by four Indian tribes
against the provincial government and Stolts Sea Farm and Heritage
Acquaculture, which operate in the Broughton Archipelago, near Vancouver
Island.

The lawsuit said that heavy infestations of sea lice from salmon farms
attached themselves to wild pink salmon as they swam near the farms and
killed them, sharply reducing the run this spring from the expected 3.5
million to 147,000.

Environmentalists blame the salmon farms. Salmon farmers say there is no
proof.

But David Rideout, the executive director of the Canadian Aquaculture
Industry Alliance in Ottawa, does not deny that lice from farmed salmon may
be to blame for the decimation of the wild salmon run. But, he said: "At
certain levels sea lice contamination at farms can be easily managed, but
after a certain level they can have an effect on the wild stock and we have
no surveillance data.

"We need to find out a way to manage. In the intervening period we can't put
the wild stock at risk."

Alaska has banned fish farms to protect its wild stocks.

Farmed salmon are here to stay, and Rebecca Goldberg, a senior scientist
with Environmental Defense, said there are ways to make the process more
environmentally friendly: raising the salmon in floating tanks that catch
the waste, using second crops like oysters, mussels and seaweed that would
make use of the waste. Others have suggested raising salmon in closed
systems, and not in the ocean.

But first, the environmentalists say, the authorities have to enforce the
laws.

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