October 23, 2003



Adjustment of Protocol Necessary in US to Certify Canadian Fish


It's a little easier to find North American salmon these days.


Since a federal court judge in May ordered two of the state's largest salmon farms, Atlantic Salmon of Maine and Stolt Sea Farms, to stock their pens only with North American strains of Atlantic salmon, aquaculture operations have been seeking genetically pure fish, with no success. Every batch of Canadian hatchery fish tested showed some European genes, and thus failed the strict protocol designed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


As such, the federal fisheries biologists decided to adjust the protocol in this week so that more fish will pass.


The decision may come too late for some of Maine's salmon farms trying to comply with U.S. District Court Judge Gene Carter's ruling. At least one has plans to close two hatcheries due to lack of certified fish.


The test had not been designed to certify thousands of fish and was producing too many false positives, explained Mike Bartlett, a New England supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, who is based in Concord, N.H.


"[Genetics] is not a black-and-white test. It's a continuum," he said Monday.


Purely European and purely North American fish are easy to distinguish. But many hatchery salmon are the genetically muddied descendants of hybrid fish, the result of decades of breeding a stronger, healthier farmed salmon, Bartlett said.


"That's the way the hatchery aquaculture business runs," he said.


When the service set out to define how many European genes were too many, it drew the line in a "very conservative place," in hopes of keeping the brood fish in federal hatcheries as purely North American as possible. Hybrid fish were included in the definition of European fish to keep the genes pure, he said.


"We actually set the line so that it cut into genetically North American fish," Bartlett said.


The problem arose when aquaculture companies started applying the protocol to the court ruling.


"Judge Carter's ruling sent companies out on a dead run to buy North American fish, and all the lots were failing," Bartlett said.


The service uses a sampling system whereby an entire lot be full of hundreds of fish, will be considered non-native if just one sample fish fails the genetic test, he said.


Steve Page, environmental compliance officer for Atlantic Salmon of Maine in Belfast, said Tuesday that the reprieve is welcome, but comes too late for his company. The company last month announced plans to close both of its Maine hatcheries.


"We've tested fish from seven different hatcheries in Canada, and none of them passed this genetic protocol," he said.


Due to this protocol, Atlantic Salmon of Maine was unable to stock its hatcheries with 800,000 young fish this fall and instead will be forced to purchase larger, more expensive fish to stock directly into ocean pens next spring, he said.


The new standard means that more fish with a hybrid ancestor will be certified as native. But federal scientists and advocates for wild salmon agree that the change doesn't pose a major risk to Maine's wild Atlantic salmon.

Jamie Geiger, also of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, calls the change an example of the service's "adaptive management." When a plan isn't working, scientists go back to the drawing board, he said.


"We are doing the most appropriate thing for wild fish, and to make sure that a responsible aquaculture industry can continue to operate in Maine," he said Tuesday.


Andy Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation agrees, and is confident that the new rules about containment of aquaculture fish will provide sufficient protection if a hybrid salmon slips through the federal test.


"We believe that it is sufficiently protective of the native population," he said Tuesday.


Furthermore he believes the situation is only temporary. The immediacy of Carter's ruling has created a "bottleneck." But given enough time, the companies will develop their stocks of native Atlantic salmon that are far less dangerous for the state's wild fish.

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