On January 10, 2015 a hurricane of wind and snow hit the coast of Norway. They called it extreme weather Nina. When the winds finally calmed, the first sport fishermen to venture out on the fjords near Bergen got a big surprise. Shoals of farmed fish were visible from the surface. NRK, the national news, reported the fjords of Western Norway were boiling with farmed rainbow trout on the run.
“Blacklisted” trout threaten Norwegian wild salmon
Rainbow trout, called steelhead when they live in saltwater, are a “blacklisted” species in Norway because they are not native. Rainbow trout have been shipped all over the world from North America, destined to become farm fish.
BC’s wild steelhead are one of the most beloved salmon in British Columbia. People spend thousands of dollars to come here for the chance to fish steelhead, but the misshapen, blotchy-coloured, obese creatures swimming towards wild salmon rivers in Norway were not at all welcomed by fishermen.
At first, the papers reported that just one farm had spilled its captives into the fjords. Then it was farmed Atlantic salmon and steelhead from four farms. Initial estimates of tens of thousands of escapees escalated to a potential 1.5 million and Norway had just announced a zero-escape farm salmon policy.
Fishermen respond as salmon farmers do nothing
Norwegian sport fishermen responded immediately with nets and fishing rods to try to get rid of the invaders. They could see many were ready to spawn and were determined to remove them before they could dig into the river gravel where precious wild Atlantic salmon eggs were incubating. As they caught hundreds per day, they were angry that the salmon farmers did not show up to help. Fisherman Regine Emilie Mathiesen told the media:
[quote]This is such a big environmental threat, that we do not dare to leave. [/quote]
Facebook lit up with horrific images of the “flabby,” swollen farmed steelhead, little swimming nightmares with open sores, missing tails and internal organs hemorraging blood. The fishermen caught thousands, but not a single wild fish. They worried all the farm fish blundering around had caused the wild fish to flee.
While the Directorate of Fisheries suggested the escaped fish would stay near the farms, they did not. Fishermen found the steelhead spreading into the surrounding network of fjords and channels. The fish farming companies offered a reward – $8/fish.
Escaped fish were “very sick” with disease: Biologist
And then an extraordinary thing happened. The Askøy Hunter & Fisherman’s Association decided to find out for themselves why these escaped steelhead looked so sick. They sent seven to Dr. Are Nylund of the University of Bergen. Nylund is a leading salmon disease scientist. It was Nylund and his team who tracked the ISA virus from Norway into Chile where it eventually caused $2 billion in damages.
This research brought swift attack on his lab and credibility. However he emerged uncowed and took the fish from the fishermen and tested them.
“All of the fish that I have analyzed were very sick,” reported Nylund to the Norwegian newspaper BA Bergensavisen.
One of the steelhead tested positive for pancreas disease (PD), a highly contagious viral disease, causing epidemic losses to the salmon farming industry. Chile petitioned the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to make this virus reportable so they could refuse Atlantic salmon eggs from infected sources to try to protect their country. The virus is reportable in Norway, but no one seemed aware these steelhead might be infected.
Norwegian govt misses the point
While the Norwegian government was slow to respond to the massive escape they were very quick to respond to this testing, asking people use “official” labs, not independent labs. “It takes an expert to confirm and make such a diagnosis,” as if Nylund was not. A government spokesperson pointed out that just because evidence of PD was found it did not mean the fish was sick. She failed to capture the concern. No one cared if the farm fish was sick – what they cared about was whether it could infect the fragile wild salmon populations. There are only about 500,000 wild Atlantic salmon left in Norway, less than ½ the fish found in a single farm.
Industry denies infection
The controversy rages on. The owner of the escaped steelhead denied they were infected. The Norwegian Seafood Federation said the gruesome-looking fish were not intended for human consumption. However, others suggested the fish had been medicated in December to delouse them, which suggests they were not scheduled to be destroyed. Fisheries suggested they should not be eaten, because they could still contain the drug.
Accusations flew back and forth as to who was responsible for the chains that should have held the farm in place, but did not. The Minister of Fisheries flew into Bergen for an emergency meeting, proclaiming that Norway needed more salmon farms, but she never reached out to the volunteers working to clean up the mess made by the industry. The Askøy Hunter & Fisherman’s Association wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister of Norway, who is from the area of the escape, asking for help.
Door opening to land-based farms?
On January 29, a Norwegian politician made a remarkable suggestion. Deputy Leader Ola Borten Moe of the Center Party suggested it is time for Norway waive the high cost of salmon farm licencing for any salmon farm established on land. He suggested this would protect Norway’s environment, stimulate innovation, solve the industry’s escalating disease and lice problems and increase job opportunities across the country.
Norway is the birth place of the salmon farming industry. When a Norwegian politician suggests it is time to move the industry into closed tanks, perhaps it really is time. BC First Nations, scientists, environmentalists, fishermen have been saying the same thing for a long time. No one wants farmed salmon to push wild salmon off our coasts, and our plates.
BC and Norway: mirror images
The irony of this situation is inescapable. We are mirror images – British Columbians work to protect wild Pacific salmon from infected farmed Atlantic salmon, while Norwegians work to protect wild Atlantic salmon from infected North American fish. The catastrophic biological ineptitude of international commerce has to upgrade into something much smarter.
[quote] This is an environmental catastrophe that only escalates, I feel that those who govern this country are stealing nature from the youth. We can not keep on like this anymore! -Regine Emilie Mathisen [/quote]
On February 5, the Norwegian government passed a new order, a compulsory plan to capture escaped farmed salmon in the rivers and to identify who lost the fish and make them pay. Government funds will be allocated to enforcement. While the fishermen remain skeptical, the swift action by Norway to discontent with this industry stands in stark contrast with the Harper and Clark governments which have ignored the calls of thousands of British Columbians to get this industry away from our wild salmon.
See videos and news tories on this ongoing saga on Alexandra Morton’s facebook page.