Farmed Norway salmon at a market in France. Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
The world’s largest producer of farmed salmon is offering a $90 bounty for every recaptured fish after possibly thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon staged a jailbreak from their 127,000-fish cage in Norway, further endangering the wild salmon population and concerning those who prefer the wild variety for health reasons.
Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company that farms and exports fish all over the world, announced the reward on Monday after discovering over the weekend that fish had escaped their massive submerged cage through a hole likely caused by ongoing stormy weather.
"Marine Harvest takes the incident very seriously. We acknowledge that escapes can have a negative impact on wild salmon, and we have a goal of zero escapes," Marte Grindaker, a spokeswoman for the company, told Al Jazeera.
In addition to setting out nets in the surrounding area and immediately repairing the damaged cage, Marine Harvest has contacted local fisherman to offer them a cash incentive for help recovering the fish.
But Grindaker said that, as far as she knew, no fish had yet been returned and that the total number of escapees was unknown.
“We will count the fish as soon as the weather conditions improve. We cannot do that at the moment due to the weather, which is quite harsh now,” she said.
Scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which monitors the environmental impact of fish farming through its Seafood Watch advisory, say farmed salmon escapes harm the marine ecosystem in several ways.
This latest escape “underscores our general concern that escapes — and their potential impact on wild populations — are a factor that makes nearly all farmed Atlantic salmon a species to avoid," the aquarium told Al Jazeera.
Escaped farmed salmon threaten their wild cousins because they compete for food and mates. Because farmed salmon are bigger and faster-growing, they often win out.
And when farmed salmon succeed in mating with wild salmon, they are liable to produce genetically inferior offspring.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) says salmon farming is “associated with numerous environmental concerns, including water pollution, chemical use, parasites and disease.” Experts say farmed salmon can pass contaminants, parasites and pathogens to wild salmon.
Though on the decline, farmed salmon escapes are not exactly rare. Strong winds and predators like seals can breach the salmon cages, freeing hundreds of thousands of salmon a year.
In 2006, the worst year on record, 921,000 farmed salmon escaped, according to the Norwegian Fisheries Directorate. Last year, improved prevention measures reduced that number to 38,000.
The farmed-salmon industry has been subject to health scrutiny for decades, and some consumers worry escaped salmon could have implications for the healthfulness of their seafood.
Many consumers avoid eating farmed salmon, citing a controversial 2004 study that found they contained higher rates of carcinogenic chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have been banned by most salmon-producing countries but are persistent in the environment and feed for some farmed salmon.
But salmon farmers say their fish are not as bad as they used to be. Many health authorities note that improved farming standards, as dictated by organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, are closing the gap between farmed and wild salmon.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium has even issued a “buy” recommendation to the Chilean Verlasso brand of farmed salmon, which are not at risk of interacting with wild salmon if they manage to escape, since salmon are native to the Northern Hemisphere.
Citing reduced levels of toxins in today’s farmed salmon, Norway’s Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research in June repealed an advisory that limited the amount of farmed salmon consumers should to eat.
The salmon farmed by Marine Harvest, however, is still designated “avoid” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
But wild salmon are growing scarce: Divided among the world’s population, wild salmon could provide only a single serving for each person per year.
In response to this, many scientists advocate for the farming of genetically modified salmon to meet world demand.