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But history hasn’t shown any negative impacts or invasiveness of Atlantic salmon in the natural territory of Pacific salmon, says Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.
He pointed to an experiment in the mid-20th century where the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) introduced hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into British Columbia’s waters in hopes they’d colonize and be available for sport fishers.
And that would be the case again today, Dunn said, at least in part because farmed salmon are fed food pellets, so once in the wild, “they’re going to have a hard time eating if the pellets aren’t readily available.”
Escapes like the one in Washington were more common 10-15 years ago in B.C., he said, but changes in Canadian regulations and improvements in technology mean they don’t happen as often as they once did.
“The farms that our members have in British Columbia are highly engineered, able to withstand very fast currents and very rough seas,” he said.
Even with past escapes, he says, there are no Atlantic salmon in the waters of B.C.
“DFO will conduct stream surveys in areas closest to the U.S. border to monitor for any escaped Atlantic salmon,” Terry Beech, parliamentary secretary to LeBlanc, said.
“The fish aren’t expected to enter into rivers and streams until they mature in the fall. Past research suggests that many of these fish won’t adapt to natural feeding practices and that most would either be caught or predated upon.”
“It’s impossible,” Dunn said.
“Any activity or any issue that might be seen to be affecting or potentially affecting Pacific salmon, people are concerned about,” Dunn said. “I think B.C.’s concern for Pacific salmon is a good thing and is why we’re going to have Pacific salmon here for generations to come.”
A recent study out of the University of Melbourne provides another possible explanation for why escaped farmed salmon may not thrive in a natural environment, which has been attempted in some places a conservation effort.
The study notes that fish in the wild use their hearing to find prey and avoid predators and as a way to navigate to and from breeding grounds. Without it, their chances for survival are poor.
Ecologist John Volpe at the University of Victoria, however, is concerned about the introduction of thousands of Atlantic salmon.
Volpe told CBC News that there have been attempts to colonize Atlantic salmon in B.C. as far back as the early 1900s for fishing, and it hasn’t worked. But, he says, there’s a big difference between then and now.
“Back in the day, we were introducing fry — young fish prone to predation that themselves were not in peak physical condition,” he said.
Salmon that escape from farms these day are more likely to be “physically fit adult fish,” which in large numbers could have an environmental impact.
Volpe said escaped salmon do survive and will go on to breed.
He published research in 2000 showing evidence of breeding, but said academic research on the topic has come to a halt since then.
Without research, Volpe said, there’s no way of knowing what the impact of this recent salmon escape will be.
“The scope of risk and the magnitude of impact spans a huge gradient,” he said.