Concern about the effects of farmed Atlantic salmon on wild Puget Sound stocks have dogged the industry in recent decades. A September 1999 white paper by WDFW scientists found that evidence available before the summer of 1998 suggested escaped Atlantic salmon were not colonizing local watersheds and were not significantly impacting native fish. "However in 1998 and in 1999 naturally produced Atlantic salmon were discovered in streams on Vancouver Island, British Columbia," the scientists wrote.
John Volpe, an invasion ecologist at the University of Victoria, who found those fish, noted in an interview this week that anyone who says they know anything for sure about the impact of farmed salmon escapes "is either speaking from emotion or politics." That is because so little scientific research has been done on the topic, Volpe said.
Mike Rust, NOAA Aquaculture Science Coordinator, said the U.S. industry has improved its practices to clean up the farms. "They have changed a lot in the last 40 years," Rust said. In Washington, the farms have to meet pollution discharge permit standards and report all use of drugs and chemicals to state regulators used in the fish and their feed.
Farmed salmon also convert feed to flesh more efficiently than other livestock, and are cleaner, too, Rust said. "If you look at them next to pigs and chickens and cows, they are actually very sustainable and clean."
Reaction to farmed Atlantic salmon in a region that reveres wild fish is mixed. Whole Foods was cutting prices on "farm fresh" salmon this week, but some Puget Sound chefs and restaurant owners, including Tom Douglas and Duke's Chowder House restaurants, won't serve it. "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig," said Duke Moscrip, founder of Duke's Chowder House restaurants. "There are so many issues with the product. I've seen so many sea lice on farmed salmon you have to throw it away. And the color and the flavor and texture just aren't there."
For Washington tribes the fish are both a competitive and ecological threat, and the spill has raised ire.
At Lummi Nation, tribal members last week were in an emergency fishery chasing down Atlantic salmon.
Jay Julius, a Lummi tribal council member and lifelong fisherman, had caught more than 20,000 pounds of Atlantics but was too distressed by the spill to go home and rest. "We know how salmon think, how to work the tides, but these fish are different," he said, navigating to a new spot to set his nets.
Jewell Praying Wolf James, a Lummi tribal master carver, said the spill felt like a repeat of history. "There are fewer and fewer Puget Sound chinook and coho returning to the spawning habitat, it is open and available, and becomes ripe for colonization, just like what happened to us," James said. "And private corporations are making a large profit off it. It is like when the settlers came."
Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands at the Department of Natural Resources, which holds all the leases for the Puget Sound farms, said she had "grave concerns" about Atlantic salmon fish farms on state-owned aquatic lands.