The recent discovery of farm-raised Atlantic salmon in two rivers — one in Maine, one in New Brunswick — has prompted renewed criticism from a wild-salmon conservation group and led to a flurry of fact-finding efforts by the region’s largest salmon aquaculture firm, which says it has not found a breach in pens at its facilities.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation, an international conservation group, on Thursday issued a press release explaining that 10 farmed salmon — the number has since increased to 11 — had been captured in the Magaguadavic River, which is located in southwest New Brunswick. Another three farmed salmon were found in a weir on the Dennys River in Down East Maine.

Andrew Goode, the vice president for U.S. programs for the ASF, pointed out that only nine wild fish had returned to the Dennys this year. While low, that marked an increase over recent returns in a region where wild Atlantic salmon are listed as endangered.

“Given how low those populations [of wild fish in the Down East rivers] are, any farmed fish getting in in there and mating with the wild fish — as we know they do from other studies — can really hurt the wild population,” Goode said. “That Dennys population, there’s no question that it’s been compromised.”

The ASF press release cited a Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada report that recognizes the risk posed by interaction between farmed and wild Atlantic salmon. “Even small percentages of escaped farmed salmon have the potential to negatively affect resident populations, either through demographic or genetic changes,” according to the report. “There have been many reviews and studies showing that the presence of farmed salmon results in reduced survival and fitness of wild Atlantic salmon.”

An official at Cooke Aquaculture, which is based in New Brunswick and has fish farming operations in Maine, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Chile and Spain, said the company has spent the past week looking for potential breaches of their facilities, but has found none.

“We don’t believe these fish are from our farms, but we’re doing our best to make 100 percent certain of that,” said Nell Halse, Cooke Aquaculture’s vice president for communications. “We’re the only salmon farmer in Maine, so of course people come to us first. But we know that salmon don’t honor the border, so that doesn’t mean that these fish came from Maine.”

Cooke is a major player in the salmon farming business, and faced with the escape of farmed salmon, some — Goode included — start at the top of the region’s fish-farming food chain and start looking at Cooke facilities first. According to Cooke Aquaculture’s website, the company processes and sells 115 million pounds of Atlantic salmon each year.

No evidence has been found that the escaped fish came from Cooke, however, as both Goode and Halse point out.

“We have millions of fish in the water, but there are also other companies that have millions of fish in the water,” Halse explained. “It wouldn’t take much of a breach to have 10 fish go up the river. We can’t assume that just because we’re the biggest player, this is our issue.”

Jon Carr, ASF’s director of research, said there could be up to a maximum of 30 million salmon in sea cages in the Bay of Fundy.

Neither, she admits, can Cooke assume it’s not their issue. To that end, Halse said the company has been scrambling for about a week to make sure their fish pens are as secure as can be.

After the fish were discovered in the Dennys, Halse said the company looked at its Maine operations in Cobscook Bay. Divers were sent into the water to survey the pens, feeding records were analyzed to determine if less feed was being consumed in each pen — fewer fish would consume less feed — and the company received samples of the escaped fish for DNA analysis.

Similar analysis has been done on all of the Cooke fish farms in New Brunswick that would hold salmon of the size caught in the Dennys and Magaguadavic — between 12 and 13 pounds — and no breaches have been found.

One of Goode’s main criticisms involves the actual reporting of breaches. He said the ASF often finds out about escaped salmon when they show up in a fish trap at a salmon river, or in a weir. He also said that regulations regarding pen maintenance and construction that exist on the U.S. side of the border are not consistently followed in Canada.

Halse said that at Cooke, the same protocols are followed at all facilities on either side of the border. There is a difference, she said, in the form of reporting that is required should salmon escape. Halse said that New Brunswick does require a company to file a report if they believe they may have lost fish in an incident, and said Cooke takes that responsibility seriously. Last winter, she said, Cooke filed such a report when it found a tear in a net, even though they did not believe that any fish had escaped.

“ASF is of course very concerned and they are speculating that there’s an unreported breach,” Halse said. “We take that very seriously. We don’t have any unreported breaches in our company and we would have reported [one] if we had known that there was an issue. Our double-checks have also indicated no issue.”

And while Goode first referred to Cooke Aquaculture by name, then softened his stance toward the company as the source of the current breach in a follow-up email, he said two different sets of regulations for the border nations have created a problem.

In Maine, he said, the standards for fish pen construction and anchoring have been mandated for several years, and there have been no salmon escapes since the new regulations took effect. In Canada, he said there is no such mandate — Cooke, again, says that it follows the same standards in both countries — and he said salmon escape from Canadian pens quite regularly.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and Jon Lewis, the DMR’s Aquaculture Environmental Coordinator, could not be reached for comment.

“What I find frustrating is that [escaped salmon] has been a problem for a long time,” said Andrew Goode, vice president of U.S. Programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, an international conservation group. “The U.S. government should be putting more pressure on the Canadians to get their act together and institute the same level of regulations on the Canadian side as we have on the Maine side, or our regulations don’t do any good.”

Halse said Cooke Aquaculture’s owners and employees also take wild-salmon conservation seriously.

“The owners of our company and many of our employees are avid anglers and salmon conservationists,” she said. “We share the same goals [as the ASF]. We also believe our fish should be on the farm and not going up the rivers. So whatever we can do to make that happen is good.”

Note: BDN publisher Richard J. Warren is the U.S. chairman of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...