Fire at B.C. fish farm releases thousands of Atlantic salmon

Juvenile Atlantic salmon in Washington. (Photo courtesy Roger Tabor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon escaped a Canadian fish farm that caught fire Dec. 20, north of Vancouver Island. Mowi Canada West, released a statement confirming there were 21,000 non-native salmon in the pens at the time of the blaze. It downplayed threats to wild stocks.

“Judging by the number of sea lions congregating near the involved farm it is likely many have already been eaten by predators,” the statement said. “That said, we take our responsibility to prevent any impacts seriously, and will take every reasonable action to do so.”

The Vancouver-based Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s science advisor Stan Proboszcz says this latest escape off Robertson Island — and a recent mass die-off nearby — highlights the risks of raising salmon in sea-based pens.

“Farmed fish can harbor parasites and viruses that can be spread to wild fish,” Proboszcz said. “So that’s one of the big risks that we see with an escape like this.”

The environmental group advocates moving B.C.’s fish farms onto land. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party pledged during the recent federal elections to make that happen by 2025.

“So we’re hoping that given the frequency of these escapes and die offs, that that kind of be fast tracked as soon as possible,” he said, “to give our wild fish a fighting chance.”

Finfish aquaculture is outlawed in Alaska. In 2017, hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon escaped from a fish farm in Puget Sound. The following year Washington state passed a law ordering that state’s salmon farms to shut down by 2022.

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