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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Salmon Escapees

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: For years, controversy has raged over the two types of genetically distinct salmon that live in the waters of the Gulf of Maine. On the one hand, biologists struggle to restore devastated stocks of wild Atlantic salmon to native spawning grounds. And on the other hand, fish farmers run a multi-million dollar industry raising specially-bred salmon in pens along the coast. The importance of saving wild Atlantic salmon was highlighted this past November when the federal government listed the fish as an endangered species. Then, in December, a storm released thousands of the farm fish, raising the possibility that they might mate with the endangered variety. The Boston Globe's Beth Daley describes what happened Down East in the waters of Machias Bay.

DALEY: There was a very, very fierce storm on December sixteenth, that weekend. I mean, winds were hitting, I called the Weather Service, winds were hitting about 88 miles per hour for gusts. Seas were huge. And the aquaculture company simply couldn't get to the site, and so we're sort of waiting anxiously on shore. When they finally got there the next morning, they found the steel cages had completely buckled. The moorings came loose, and about 100,000 of the 175,000 fish had escaped. Dave Fitzgerald, the owner of the company, called George LaPointe, the head of Maine's Division of Marine Resources. What happened since then, he said, holidays intervened, he got busy. And simply, he said very honestly, he forgot. It wasn't until February sixth or seventh that he wrote an e-mail to a federal official at NOAA.

CURWOOD: That's about seven weeks of delay. What are the repercussions for him?

DALEY: Because there's no law, there are no repercussions for him other than public scrutiny which is probably well-deserved at this point for him. To forget that 100,000 salmon escaped in Maine, when this is such a large, controversial issue there, is somewhat beyond comprehension to a lot of people. And the almost obvious thing that has to happen is that from now on there needs to be a system set up when there is an escape of salmon, that people have to learn about it.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you about the Maine regulator. How much do you think that his forgetfulness might be related to perhaps being rather close to the salmon industry, and maybe wanting to protect them from the embarrassment and the scrutiny that --

DALEY: I think that's an extraordinarily important question, and one that, again, needs much scrutiny. Right now, in November, the federal government, after five years, five long years of controversy, declared Atlantic salmon in seven Maine rivers as endangered. And it basically throws a big cog into the wheels of this burgeoning aquaculture industry in Maine. And what was interesting about this Endangered Species Act controversy is that the governor and the state of Maine came out adamantly against it, arguing that there's no such thing as wild salmon in Maine. Basically, the salmon had disappeared years ago, and officials had been stocking these Maine rivers with Canadian salmon from the St. Lawrence and other rivers. So there really was no such thing as genetically pure salmon, and what's the big deal? So, the government is extraordinarily, extraordinarily close to this situation. So it does raise questions in a lot of people's minds whether this forgetfulness was maybe more of a case of shielding some information from some people.

CURWOOD: What about this question of the significance of this release? Arguments that "yes, 100,000 fish, but hey, there's not really wild salmon left." Why is this so important? Why is this so controversial?

DALEY: It's on a twofold thing, why it's important. The first is that, just as people, we want to keep species living that we know that are still living. I mean, it's just a sort of fundamental pull we have, is that we don't know if these pure salmon somehow fit into our chain of ecosystem in some fundamental way that we're going to regret later on. So for that very reason. the feds want to keep these fish separate and distinct. The other part of it is that the idea that aquaculture fish, if they did mate with wild salmon--and for a lot of people that seems like a really bizarre concept -- why would two species of different fish mate with each other? But, in fact, they've done so in Norway and tainted the genetic pool in some fundamental way, environmentalists argue. A lot of aquaculture salmon got released in Norway over the years. Their industry is much further along than we are. We only got a decade old. And the salmon mated, they created a hybrid, and also they passed on diseases, which is another big fear federal officials have in Maine. So, those two reasons are sort of at the core of why everyone should be, or is, concerned about the salmon release in Maine.

CURWOOD: What's the mood in the communities around Maine, people who are both dependent on aquaculture for work and those who live there?

DALEY: Two moods. The ones who depend on aquaculture for work, which is a growing number, feel, you know, this is just one more slam to them. They're feeling really dejected. They're feeling like they have egg on their face because it looks clandestine that somehow these salmon escaped and no one wanted to tell them about it, tell the world about it. Now, the people who live along the coast of Maine, many environmentalists, are, I'd say they have a mixture of glee and horror, because this is what they've been predicting all along is coming true. That these salmon were not safe. They're going to harm our ecosystem in some unknown way that no one can predict or say. And, lo and behold, it's come true.

CURWOOD: What changes is Maine going to make in its regulations as a result of this incident, do you think?

DALEY: It's unclear what Maine is going to do. They say that they're going to require a way for the aquaculture industry to tell them about released salmon. Other than that, they're continuing along this long continuum with the federal government, figuring out what kind of fish do they allow in aquaculture sites? How far away should they be from these endangered river mouths? All those things are just sort of being, coming into play right now. And I'd say the next six months are really critical.

CURWOOD: Beth Daley covers the environment for the Boston Globe. Thanks for speaking with us today, Beth.

DALEY: Thank you.

(Music up and under: Irresistible Force, "Fish")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Sprawling communities can lead to sprawling waistlines. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)



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