Outdoor Writers Association of America
This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

June 5th, 2000

Another White Rat

Some interesting information has come my way the past couple of weeks. I want to share it with you. A little background music, please - I spent the early part of my working life as a medical researcher. I am skeptical. We had a sign in one of the research labs which read, "White Rats Cause Cancer." Some of you may recall the 'cranberry' scare of many years ago. A Canadian research group claimed eating cranberries caused cancer. It nearly killed the cranberry industry. When pushed, the group fessed up. A person would have to eat more than twenty pounds of cranberries a day, every day for twenty years, to get the same results the lab obtained. Of course they used lab rats for their experiments.

Thus the "White Rats Cause Cancer" sign in our lab.

The State of Washington just released a huge study which concluded Salmon are a Prime specie here in the Northwest. They showed the various ways salmon influence the whole environmental spectrum, and concluded the Salmon are really important. Duh. I wonder how much that study cost. It would seem anyone with a brain had figured that out. Well except maybe some of the folks who have been 'managing' our salmon. And Senator Slade Gordon.

But it's not just here! The Atlantic Salmon have been in trouble for years. There have been special international commissions, special regulations, treaties - the whole gamut of things tried to improve the situation. In some European countries the numbers are at least stabilized. In Canada and the U.S. the numbers continue to decline.

Orvis sent out a Press Release recently, announcing they are no longer selling "farm raised smoked salmon in the pages of its widely distributed catalogs. The move was in response to the mounting tide of evidence of the threats farmed salmon pose to wild Atlantic salmon, a species in danger of extinction in the United States. Given the current stalemate between industry, environmental and governmental groups, Orvis believes that this decisive action will not only bring some small measure of protection to the endanger fish, but more importantly will serve to create public awareness and motivate action on this urgent, complex issue."

This is not about declining numbers of wild Atlantic Salmon. Orvis wasn't buying wild Atlantic Salmon. They were buying farmed fish! But, there is 'some' evidence that the conditions under which fish are farmed 'may' cause a deadly infectious disease in salmon populations, particularly infectious salmon anemia (ISA). Note the word 'may' - no one really knows. The ISA may also be spread by some carrier fish which isn't affected by the disease. The disease has been found in farmed fish, and recently in a river two miles north of the Canadian border in wild salmon. That isn't really a smoking gun since those returning fish have traveled thousands of miles over their migration.

The ISA disease has also been found in farmed Atlantic Salmon in Chile. I wonder where those eggs came from.

The farmed salmon here in Washington state are mostly Atlantic Salmon. There have been several instances of those fish escaping. However, no ISA has been found here.

Orvis also mentions the problems of escaped Salmon possibly interbreeding with the wild salmon and thereby weakening the local gene pool. The farmed salmon supposedly are from European strains, and are genetically different that the resident, wild Atlantic salmon. Here in the west the states have been raising hatchery fish for commercial and sport fishing for years. I can't help but wonder how 'pure' that strain is. And has it interbreed with the wild Pacific Salmon?

While I do applaud Orvis for trying to get more public attention for the plight of the Atlantic Salmon, I wish they had thought through their strategy. They suggest, " When purchasing smoked salmon, look for sources that guarantee that the salmon they carry meet the following qualifications:

    * The salmon are wild or, if farmed, they came from a company using local strains of salmon.

    *The salmon used are of a Pacific strain that is less threatened - King (also known as Chinook). Sockeye (also known as Red), and Silver (also know as Coho).

    * The aqua-culture methods employed have been approved by the federal government."

Other than the tribal and State Hatcheries here in Washington state, I believe all the farmed fish here are Atlantics. All must meet federal standards. And the less threatened Pacific salmon? Opps. All of the Pacific Salmon here in Washington state are in major trouble. That includes the lowly summer-run Chum Salmon.

British Columbia has severely restricted the taking of Salmon. Some commercial seasons for 2000 have already been severely restricted or closed. The once fabulous Thompson River Coho fishery has been restricted for a few years, and has not seem any substantial improvement of stocks.

That pretty much leaves Alaska.

If as Orvis suggests, "consumers, chefs, restauranteurs and fish mongers . . . voice their concerns and become critical in their salmon buying" where does that leave us? With more and more pressure on the remaining wild Pacific Salmon?

I don't have the answers; I'm hoping you will take an interest in this. I don't think the commercial farming of Atlantic Salmon is the culprit - but I don't have all the facts. Nor does anyone yet. At this point no one knows what causes ISA. Studies are underway.

I do know that farmed salmon now supplies about half of the world market. For that I am grateful. If the market was not being met with farmed fish, how much more demand on the ever shrinking wild salmon population would there be?

Before we point fingers at the farmed salmon community for causing anything, I think we have to have a lot more facts than are currently available.

White rats cause cancer. ~ LadyFisher

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