Aquaculture in Newfoundland has grown from a 50-million dollar industry in 2000,  to a roughly $200-million industry today. The jump to the $200-million mark happened because we’ve really stepped up farming salmon; the farming of blue mussels for instance, has remained pretty constant. Today, we’re Canada’s second biggest producer of farmed salmon.

Along with the surge in value of our aquaculture industry, has been a wave of concern from the scientific community that salmon farming done poorly can be costly in every sense of the word. Aquaculture could play a key role in diversifying our economy, if it’s done right, but we mostly adhere to “open net-cage salmon farming,” which is the bad kind.

The simplest explanation is that wild Atlantic Salmon are native to our waters, and their environment has been the same forever – that includes the kinds of fish living amongst them. if we were to start farming a non-native species, similar to salmon, and they escaped, wild salmon would suddenly have troublesome competition in their waters, for food and habitat, and their numbers would dwindle It’d be like sending a new kid into your child’s bedroom and watching them fight over limited toys.

Luckily, we only farm species already native to our waters to mitigate this concern – Atlantic Salmon, Blue Mussels, Rainbow Trout, and some Atlantic Cod and Char. The farmed ones are not exactly cut from the same cloth, but they’re same species at least.

So the main issue here is that farmed salmon are kind of notoriously gross. It’s not their fault. Being cramped up in a cage makes them easy targets — and jackpots — for parasites like sea lice, and for pathogens that cause a variety of diseases.

Essentially, salmon farms act like incubators of disease and parasites: the fish are cooped up like hostages, and being relatively immobile, they’re defenceless against parasites and pathogens. As an extreme example, in 2005, a salmon infection known as furunculosis killed nearly 2 million salmon smolts at a single commercial salmon hatchery on Vancouver Island.

To counteract this sort of thing, salmon farmers lace these salmon coops with antibiotics and pesticides – not good for you, not good for the environment. These salmon also live amongst their own feces, etc. So, salmon farming zones aren’t pretty.

The waters in the bays that house open-net salmon farms can become lousy with lice and pathogens, and our native fish swim in these waters. Also, farmed fish can escape their cages. When these kinds of diseased, parasite-covered farmed fish get out and mingle with wild Atlantic salmon, they spread these ailments to our wild salmon.

(It should be noted some reports claim we have less sea lice than other places, on account of lower salinity, but, we have sea lice nonetheless.)

We can look to B.C for a warning – they’ve been farming salmon longer. Today, sea lice from salmon farms in BC is one of the biggest threats to wild Pacific salmon. And a study published in Conservation Biology reported that non-native salmon were found in over 80 wild salmon spawning streams.

Naturally salmon farms do what they can to prevent escapes and they ensure the public escapes won’t happen, but clearly they do. Not too long ago in Ireland, 230,000 salmon flew the coop after a bad storm damaged their cages in Bantry Bay.

We need only look to our neighbours for warning. In the late 90s, farmed fish was New Brunswick’s biggest agricultural export by far. But ignoring the environmental threats of the operation wound up costing taxpayers big time, when the New Brunswick government had to slaughter millions of farmed fish in order to protect wild stocks from a farm-borne disease outbreak.

This sort of farmed-wild interaction is happening in Newfoundland. 20,000 farmed salmon escaped a farm in the Fortune Bay-Baie d’Espoir area in 2013.

DFO’s Dr. Ian Bradbury is studying the fallout, and he has evidence to suggest there is farmed salmon DNA in local wild populations. He sampled 2,000 fish, and one third of them were found to be hybrids. 94% of rivers involved in his research were affected. Farmed salmon are coming into contact with wild ones.

In short, aquaculture can make us money; bad aquaculture can come at a cost. Particularly for us, since aquaculture regulations in our waters are not as strict as those found in other aquaculture hotspots like Norway, Scotland, or the US – we use over 100  times more chemicals in our operation. Touting it as job creation works, but, salmon farming doesn’t employ that many people, compared to a healthy commercial fishery.