Salmon Farms Blamed for Virus Outbreak

Commercial salmon farms in Puget Sound are harming wild salmon but the federal government refuses to act, the Wild Fish Conservancy claims in court.


A virus outbreak in 2012 at farms off Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound "likely had significant adverse effects on the wild fish," but the government will not reconsider a 2011 determination that commercial farms do not significantly impact threatened wild salmon, according to the Nov. 4 lawsuit in Federal Court.

Commercial fish farms can spread infection because the fish live in much more densely populated areas than in the wild. The disease at issue, infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus, is spread in feces, urine and the external mucus that usually protects fish. It is particularly virulent for young fish, and those that survive can become carriers of the virus.

The Wild Fish Conservancy sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service. It claims a federal judge ordered the agencies to reconsider the finding of no adverse effects in 2008 because it failed to meet Endangered Species Act standards.

"Remarkably, the agencies concluded again in 2011 that the Puget Sound commercial salmon farms are not likely to have any adverse effect on threatened salmonids and that formal consultation under the ESA is unnecessary," the complaint states.

The outbreak of infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus, an RNA virus, at commercial salmon farms came the next year.

"Such outbreaks artificially amplify the number of viral particles that would otherwise occur due to the number and density of fish contained at the farms. The outbreak occurred at a time when wild juvenile salmonids were migrating through the nearshore environment near the commercial salmon farms and therefore likely had significant adverse effects on the wild fish. Nonetheless, NMFS and EPA have not revisited their 2011 determination to consider whether the Puget Sound commercial salmon farms may adversely affect threatened salmonids such that formal consultation under the ESA is required," the complaint states.

The outbreak occurred at three commercial salmon farms during wild Chinook salmon migration. The Conservancy says Dr. Todd Sandell, an expert in disease ecology of Pacific salmon, submitted a letter to officials saying that "given the magnitude and duration of the IHNV outbreak [and] the proximity of the infected net pens to nearshore habitat utilized by Pacific salmon ... it is highly likely that ESA-listed Chinook salmon and steelhead trout were harmed."

The Conservancy says due to the outbreak, the government is required by the Endangered Species Act to revisit its finding of no harm. They seek declaratory judgment that the agencies violated the Endangered Species Act by approving revised water quality standards for commercial farms and finding there was no adverse effect on wild salmon, and approval of the standards vacated until a biological opinion is prepared.

The Conservancy is represented by Brian Knutsen of Kampmeier & Knutsen. "Atlantic salmon feed lots in the open waters of Puget Sound pose an unacceptable health risk to ESA-listed wild salmon in Puget Sound," Wild Fish Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee said in a statement.

"By not fully evaluating the impacts of these farms, EPA and NMFS are in clear violation of the Endangered Species Act."

The National Marine Fisheries Service does not comment on pending lawsuits.

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