Public Reports on Aquaculture - Escapes

Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO’s) Pacific Aquaculture Regulations and Conditions of Licence for aquaculture in B.C. require licence holders to take various fish escape prevention measures, including maintaining cage and nets in a manner to prevent the escape of farmed fish into the ocean as well as responding to remedy the cause of the escape as soon as possible.

When there is evidence that an escape event has occurred, licence holders must report the incident to the department within 24 hours either through the Observe Record and Report Line (ORR 1-800-465-4336), or to a dedicated email mailbox, detailing the cause, time and location of the event and the species, size and number of fish involved. The licence holder must also provide fish health information about the stock, such as exposure to therapeutants. A more detailed written report is then submitted to the department within seven days.

Below are summaries of marine finfish aquaculture escape events with additional information provided by industry:

Escape prevention  

Aquaculture facilities are capable of holding large numbers of fish at various stages of growth. The potential for these fish to escape exists at various stages in their life history, but tends to occur during handling or as a result of damage to infrastructure.  Escapes from containment can occur as a result of screen failure in hatchery facilities, or when fish are being transferred from culture facilities to transport vehicles and transfer vessels, or while being moved from an inland facility to the marine environment to complete their grow out cycle.  In the case of marine finfish, damage to marine-based aquaculture containment nets as a result of storms, handling, marine mammal interactions, or other events may lead to the escape of farmed fish into the ocean.  Harvest time may also represent a risk of escape, when fish are collected from the marine sites by vessel and transported to a processing facility.

Because of the potential for escapes to occur at various times throughout the production cycle, a variety of mitigation and control measures are used to prevent them from occurring.  Both DFO and the industry place high importance on preventing escapes, both to prevent losses of farm stock and to minimize any potential impacts of escaped fish on wild fish stocks. Licence holders must have an escape prevention and response plan in place at all facilities and ensure that staff is familiar with it.  DFO staff investigate the causes of escapes and also identify the operational or infrastructure variable that could make facilities vulnerable to escape events.

A monitoring and audit program is in place to monitor compliance with Conditions of Licence, including those related to the maintenance of cage and net integrity, ensuring nets are of the appropriate strength and age, in good repair, and deployed correctly. This program promotes ongoing improvement to maintenance programs and staff training, as well as innovations and advancements in net cage technologies.  

Background on Atlantic salmon escapes  

In the early 1900s, releases of large numbers of Atlantic salmon were made in an attempt to establish Atlantic salmon in BC waters.  All of these attempts failed.  Scientific opinion, supported by the fact that self-sustaining populations of escaped farm Atlantic salmon have not been observed anywhere outside their natural range, suggests that the risk to wild Pacific salmon stocks from escaped farmed Atlantic salmon is low. Although farmed fish can successfully mate with wild fish of the same species, farmed Atlantic salmon have not been shown to successfully mate with wild Pacific salmon.  

Research on the potential effects of escaped salmon indicates there is minimal interaction between farmed Atlantic and wild Pacific salmon —either through competition for habitat and food, or as predators. Escaped farm salmon have a low survival rate. Fed an artificial diet for their entire life cycle and domesticated over multiple generations, these fish are poorly suited to survive in the wild, especially compared to wild fish.  

Monitoring of Atlantic salmon escapes  

The Atlantic Salmon Watch Program (ASWP) was established in B.C. in 1991. This program receives reports via a 24 hour telephone hotline and a dedicated email inbox on sightings and captures of Atlantic salmon in BC waters and documents escaped Atlantic salmon year-round. Observations reported by aboriginal, recreational and commercial fishers, processors, field biologists and hatchery workers provide valuable insight into the abundance, distribution and biology of Atlantic salmon in B.C. and surrounding areas.  AWSP staff follow-up on reports and verify them either through the use of photographs or biological samples where available.  The table below summarizes the reports that have been made to the ASWP since December 2010.

Summary of reported sightings and captures of Atlantic salmon in BC waters, beginning December, 2010
Date Location Life Stage Catch Method Size Condition Comments
7/21/2011 Nootka Sound Adult Troll 11.33 kg Good; some fin wear Confirmed
8/12/2011 Kitimat River Adult Angling 3.62 kg Excellent but thin Unable to confirm, carcass not retained; no photos
9/7/2011 Smith Inlet Adult Troll   1.13 kg. Good Unconfirmed; carcass not retained; photos identify it as chinook salmon
10/16/2011 South of Beachy Head Adult Troll  2.72 kg. Scarred by seal Confirmed
10/18/2011 Vedder River Adult Angling 2kg Good Unable to confirm, carcass not retained; no photos
4/1/2013 Colonial Cayeghle River Adult Angling 1.58 kg. Excellent Unconfirmed; no photo; description indicates cutthroat trout
2013 NE of Hecate Island Adult Troll         Unconfirmed; carcass not retained; photos identify it as chinook salmon
2013 Hecate Straight Adult Troll 4-5 kg Good Unconfirmed; photos identify it as Coho salmon
8/9/2013 Nitinat River Adult Angling 2.26 kg. Good Unable to confirm, carcass not retained; no photos
16/10/2013 French Creek mouth Adult Angling 0.9 – 1.36 kg Good Unconfirmed; carcass not retained; photos identify it as chum salmon
13/08/2014 Queen Charlotte Straight Adult Gill Net     Good Confirmed

Some have hypothesized that farmed Atlantic salmon could escape from their net pens and successfully reproduced in B.C.’s rivers. If this non-native species became established in local waters, we would see them in their multiple life stages, particularly juveniles in our coastal streams.

In order to evaluate this risk, DFO’s Atlantic Salmon Watch Program periodically conducts field surveys to determine if Atlantic salmon are present in B.C. waters. DFO scientists focus their work in streams where sightings and catches have been reported to the Department.

For example, DFO conducted extensive field work in 2011 and 2012 in 12 freshwater systems on Vancouver Island. No Atlantic salmon, of any life stage, were identified. A summary report of these findings has been published in DFO’s National Library (August 2015).

DFO reminds members of the public to call 1-800-811-6010 (toll-free) if they have caught or observed Atlantic salmon in B.C. waters.