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Tracing back escaped salmon

The Norwegian Seafood Federation launched a new environmental promise last year to strengthen the aquaculture industry’s efforts against fish escapes and sea lice. Among the 12 bold measures is a unique proposal to establish a system for differentiating farmed from...

Norway’s aquaculture industry has shown an impressive track record in stemming the number of fish escapes during the past decades. The number has fallen from 500,000 salmon escapes to less than 400,000 during 1993-2011, while the number of slaughtered salmon exploded positively by tenfold to 10 million tonnes, according to the Norwegian Seafood Federation (FHL).

However, there are concerns over the recent rise in escapes. The number has nearly trebled since 2008 – the industry’s best year when only 111,000 escaped – to about 320,000 in December 2011. Part of the reason for the rise was the extreme weather that pounded the coast of western Norway last year.

The industry has worked diligently for many years to reduce escapes. To further increase these efforts, the industry launched the Environmental Promise in April 2011 with even tougher measures to tackle fish escapes and eventually fine producers. As part of the new plan, the FHL has proposed countering the rise in fish escapes through camera surveillance of risk-filled situations, testing of new equipment prior to first-time use, evaluating the need for stricter technical equipment standards, more research, and the creation of a tracking system to trace escaped fish back to their aquaculture farms.

“As the fisheries minister pointed out (in April), it is pretty rare that an industry comes and asks for stricter regulations,” said Aina Valland, FHL environmental director “This shows how much responsibility we are willing to take.”

Tracking Register

Valland says the industry is currently considering several options on a tracking method. DNA tracking is one of the methods being evaluated, but there is still no conclusion and it is possible that the FHL recommends two methods together. The federation will come back with a recommendation towards the end of the year that may be used as the basis for the industry.

The Norwegian Seafood Research Fund will invest NOK 17 million over the next 2-3 years on six marking and tracing projects. The other projects include physical tagging of farmed salmon, identification and tracking of escaped farmed salmon with rare basic substances, tracing via otolith fingerprint tags, animal welfare side effects of physical tagging of all salmon, and DNA tracking.

Most of the money – approximately NOK 10 million – will be spent on researching the tracing the origin of farmed Atlantic salmon escapees by DNA parentage assignment. One project will look into the use of single nucleotide polymorphisms with the Centre for Integrative Genetics (CIGENE), Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB), Norwegian School of Veterinarian Science (NVH), Biobank, AquaGen, and Marelife Services.

The other project will look at the use of microsatellites with the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture (Nofima), Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), Department of Primary Industries (DPI) in Victoria, Australia, and the Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies (IMARES) in the Netherlands.

“The main challenge will probably be to keep track of the different fish groups through the production chain,” said Kjell Maroni, Norwegian Seafood Research Fund director R&D aquaculture. “Some research like this has been done on the fish tilapia earlier, but not in Norway. If the projects succeed it will be groundbreaking in that it will not be necessary to tag the salmon with physical tags, only using the internal biological markers.”

Environmental Fund

The FHL has proposed that the escaped farmed fish be traced back via DNA so that the producer can pay for the cleanup. The offender would be required to pay the owner of the river NOK 500 (plus analysis costs) for every caught escapee. The money would in turn be used towards measures to help strengthen the wild salmon stock.

Until such a system is in place, the industry is obliged under the Environmental Promise to contribute to a NOK 30 million Environmental Fund from 2011-2013 that will help clean up escapees from the rivers. Voluntary participants pay NOK 10,000 per concession to be a member. There are currently more than 100 major and smaller contributors to the fund, including major producers Marine Harvest, Lerøy, and Grieg Seafood.

So far, NOK 8.8 million has been allocated during two rounds for 16 wild salmon projects in three coastal areas: Western Norway, Mid Norway and North Norway. The projects vary in size from NOK 36,000 for Numedalslågen River Owners Association to catch escaped salmon to NOK 2.5 million for Project Utmark, a comprehensive catching of escaped salmon and charting of stocks in select rivers along the coast of northern Norway.

In addition to regional projects, there is about NOK 1.45 million slated for national projects. These will be used to study methods to distinguish escaped salmon and wild salmon in rivers and trace escaped salmon back to the owner, as well as a promotional film that explains withdrawal methods for catching escaped salmon from rivers.

The FHL says there are already results from the first round of environmental funds that were issued in August 2011. In Årøyelva in Sogn, the proportion of escaped fish found in that river has gone down considerably. Of the 207 salmon caught in 2011, there were only seven escapees compared to 132 salmon caught in 2010 of which 32 were escapees.

“As an added bonus, one can also note that a number of rivers along the coast have reported an increase in return migration of wild salmon from the sea and a good season for salmon fishermen in 2011,” said Valland.