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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sick Salmon

Air Date: Week of

This year, the disease Infectious Salmon Anemia hit the salmon farming industry in Maine hard. Salmon farmers are asking the Department of Agriculture to reclassify salmon so they may receive compensation for their losses. Maine Public Radio's Naomi Schalit reports.


CURWOOD: When you put thousands of salmon in a pen to raise them for market, a disease called Infectious Salmon Anemia is a constant threat. It crippled the salmon industry in Europe and Canada a few years ago. And since then, there were fears that Infectious Salmon Anemia would hit salmon farms off the coast of Maine.

Earlier this year, it did. To keep the disease from spreading, salmon farmers have had to destroy about 800,000 fish worth millions of dollars. But the aqua farmers hope to recoup their losses with an unusual ploy. They want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reclassify salmon as livestock. Maine Public Radio's Naomi Schalit explains.


SCHALIT: On this bright September day, the tiny town of Eastport, Maine is hosting its 14th Annual Salmon Festival. But despite the sun and the good cheer, there's a shadow looming over the day. While Eastport, the commercial center of Maine's salmon aquaculture industry, is celebrating the salmon, salmon farmers around this area are slated to kill another 130,000 fish in an effort to contain the spread of Infectious Salmon Anemia or ISA. The disease can't harm humans, but it's devastating to fish and is highly contagious, especially in the densely crowded conditions of a salmon pen.


SCHALIT: That's the sound of small Atlantic Salmon jumping periodically into the air. A quarter of a million fish are contained in 12 floating connected steel cages at this site. Sebastian Belle is head of the Maine Aquaculture Association, which represents the region's major salmon farmers. Belle says the fish at this site are healthy, but that's not been the case further down Cobscook Bay. That's where farmers have detected fish with ISA, and where they've had to destroy not only infected fish, but any potentially exposed ones, as well.

BELLE: The farms, in general, so far have lost around 11 million dollars. That's just the fish. That's not including any of the costs for the composting or the collection of the fish.

SCHALIT: Earlier this month, the state of Maine instituted emergency rules in an attempt to curb ISA spread. Among other measures, boat traffic is limited in and out of Cobsook Bay. And the fish farms have instituted strict bio-security methods, including disinfection of equipment in boats. But there's one more tact the industry is taking in an attempt to stem their losses. They want help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sebastian Belle.

BELLE: If a farmer finds that they have a positive test result on a disease, and they are required by law to eradicate those fish. So, in other words, the USDA would come on the farm and mandate that they clean that farm out. They would then be compensated by the Federal government for the economic impact of that decision.

SCHALIT: The government compensates, or indemnifies, livestock producers if they need to slaughter cows because of a disease outbreak, says Belle. Why not do the same for fish farmers? So, earlier this summer, Maine's Marine Resources Commissioner, George Lapointe, wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary, Anne Veneman, asking that department to get involved in fighting ISA, including making payments of between 10 to 15 million dollars to affected fish farmers. Those kinds of payments, says Lapointe, would encourage a fish farmer to quickly report the kind of outbreak that could cost millions in destroyed fish.

LAPOINTE: You can't have a successful management program without indemnification, just because it allows really quick response. People don't have to worry, "geez, do I or don't I?" They just get on it.

SCHALIT: For years, Maine's Salmon Aquaculture Industry has complained about being over-regulated, but to get compensation, the industry is now asking the Agriculture Department to regulate them. To do that, the Agriculture Department must put farm-raised salmon in a category that most people associate with animals that have four legs and a tail: livestock. Scientist, Rebecca Goldburg of the advocacy group Environmental Defense says, "watch out if that happens."

GOLDBURG: Re-labeling farm fin fish as livestock appears to me chiefly a bid by the aquaculture industry to make available various sorts of compensation and subsidies that the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes available to terrestrial farmers. The industry often complains about having a great deal of regulations from the Federal government. But the fact is, calling aquaculture "agriculture" isn't going to remove these regulations.


SCHALIT: But the Maine Aquaculture Association, Sebastian Belle, disagrees. Belle says, trying to get government help isn't just a move to make some money and shirk environment mandates.

BELLE: To sit in Washington and assert that these folks are not responsible and are not out there protecting the environment is pretty cynical. Our guys are on the water everyday, and they have the most to lose if something goes wrong.

SCHALIT: The Department of Agriculture is expected to make its decision on compensation within the next six weeks.

For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit in Eastport, Maine.



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