Salmo salar (Atlantic Salmon)

Animal Fish
Family: Salmonidae
Classification: Regulated

Atlantic Salmon in Washington State


  • Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) are important world-wide in commercial aquaculture and recreational fisheries and are cultured commercially in marine net pens in Puget Sound.
  • Fishery managers are concerned that the escaped Atlantic salmon may impact native fish stocks. Listing of some native salmon stocks in Washington as "threatened" or "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act has heightened this concern.
  • Potential impacts by escaped Atlantic salmon include competition, predation, disease transfer, hybridization, and colonization.

Recent Reports on Atlantic Salmon

  • Three reports have been issued recently on marine aquaculture, including the rearing of Atlantic salmon. The Pew Oceans Commission contracted with Environmental Defense to prepare a report on marine aquaculture. Last year the Auditor General, Canada, reported on marine fish farming in Canada and more recently, the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries, Canada, issued a report on aquaculture in Canada's Atlantic and Pacific regions. These reports are compilations of scientific data provided by Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada, research by Dr. John Volpe, and observations and data collected from the Atlantic and Pacific regions of the United States. The reports also contained testimony and observations from stakeholders, both for and opposed to marine aquaculture. In general, there was no new scientific data made available in the reports.
  • The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is in the process of completing a risk assessment of Atlantic salmon aquaculture in the Pacific region. This science-based document will be released some time later this year. WDFW participated in a review of a draft. Findings reported in the draft are consistent with the findings of WDFW reported in 1999, i.e., evidence indicates that Atlantic salmon aquaculture poses low-risk to native salmon and non-salmon species.
  • For more information on Atlantic salmon, see: Atlantic Salmon in Washington State: A Fish Management Perspective.

Historical Background

  • Numerous attempts have been made in the 20th century by agencies on the Pacific coast to introduce and establish Atlantic salmon. The most recent attempt by WDFW was in 1981 when attempted introductions were made via the release of cultured Atlantic salmon smolts. No adult Atlantic salmon adults returned as a result of the releases.
  • Atlantic salmon are preferred over Pacific salmon for commercial net pen aquaculture. Virtually all of the production in Washington and 80% of the production in British Columbia is Atlantic salmon.
  • In 1990, at the direction of the Legislature, WDFW published a programmatic environmental impact statement of net pen aquaculture. Risk to native fish by Atlantic salmon was determined to be low. Subsequent permitting of individual projects would be on a case-by-case basis under the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) as they are proposed.
  • Prior to 1996, no significant escapes of Atlantic salmon from pens in Washington were recorded. In 1996, 1997, and 1999 there were large escapes of approximately 107,000, 369,000, and 115,000 fish, respectively. Escapes from pens in British Columbia in 1994-1995 were estimated to be about 60,000 fish. This is a reduction in escapes compared to what had been reported in the early 90's. Total annual escape from B.C. pens according to the most recent reports, to include chronic "leakage" of smaller fish (which is not reported), could exceed 50,000 fish, annually.

Current Status of Atlantic Salmon Aquaculture

  • Over 10 million pounds of Atlantic salmon are produced annually in Washington. The total economic value to the state is estimated at over $40 million. About 100 million pounds of salmon (80% Atlantic salmon) are produced in B.C., annually.

Regulatory Authority in Washington State Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)

  • WDFW Director and Commission have management and regulatory authority over all free ranging fish and wildlife in the state.
  • Authority of WDFW over commercial aquaculture includes disease control and new authority enacted in the 2001 Legislative session which gives WDFW the authority to work with marine net pen operators to improve prevention of escapes from net pens and gives WDFW authority to regulate species and stocks of fish reared in marine net pens.

Department of Agriculture

  • Jointly develops disease control regulations for commercial aquaculture with WDFW
  • Responsible for marketing and commodity boards for aquaculture.

Department of Ecology

  • Regulates the discharge from net pens, to include Atlantic salmon which are classified as pollutants by the Pollution Control Hearings Board.
  • Issues National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to net pens. The permits list some operational measures to be followed by net pen operators. Department of Ecology consults with WDFW.

Department of Natural Resources

  • Leases aquatic lands to net pen operators.

Counties of Washington State

  • Issue Shoreline Permits to net pens.

Treaty tribes of Washington State

  • Tribes co-manage natural resources in Washington and have input into aquaculture disease control regulations developed by WDFW.

National Marine Fisheries Service

  • NMFS administers ESA for anadromous salmonids. May require commercial net pen operators to obtain "take" permits for their operations due to impact on listed salmon species.

Army Corp of Engineers

  • The Corp requires net pens to have "Section 404" navigation permits.

Fish Management Issues of "Escaped" Atlantic Salmon

  • Review of exiting biological data suggests that escaped Atlantic salmon do not pose significant risk to native fish populations, however, the biological impacts from the recent (1996, 1997, 1999) escapes in Washington are still being evaluated. The large escapes coupled with the findings of naturally-produced Atlantic salmon juveniles on Vancouver Island in 1998 and 1999 are cause for WDFW to continue to be focused on this issue.
  • Competition - Evidence indicates non-native species do not compete well against native fish species; only a small percentage of Atlantic salmon recovered from marine waters have preyed on fish; there have been no observations of Atlantic's eating fish or fish eggs in fresh water. Atlantic salmon which have escaped from net pens near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, have successfully reproduced in three rivers. Their offspring rearing in those river were able to survive for at least a year after hatching. It is unknown if their was presence was detrimental to the wild fish stocks.
  • Predation - There is no evidence of predation by Atlantic salmon in fresh water, and only limited evidence in salt water. Most (>94%) of escaped Atlantic salmon examined have had empty stomachs.
  • Disease transfer - Consideration was given to the transfer of fish pathogens from captive and escaped Atlantic salmon to native salmon stocks. There is no evidence which indicates disease transfer from Atlantic salmon to native Pacific salmon. Fish pathogens infecting Atlantic salmon are endemic to Washington and appear to come from native fish stocks, both salmonids and non-salmonids.
  • Hybridization - The risk of escaped Atlantic salmon hybridizing with native salmonids is low. Research has demonstrated it is very difficult, even under optimal laboratory conditions, to cross-breed between Pacific and Atlantic salmon and produce viable offspring. Should this rare event occur in the wild, the offspring would be functionally sterile and incapable of reproduction.
  • Colonization - Evidence suggests this is an unlikely event; attempts to establish Atlantic salmon outside the Atlantic Ocean have failed; accidental releases of juvenile Atlantic's have not produced adults; intentional releases of Atlantic salmon smolts by WDFW failed to produce adults; evidence on Vancouver Island indicates escaped Atlantic salmon successfully produced juvenile Atlantic salmon, however, there is no evidence that these "wild" Atlantic salmon have returned to their natal stream and successfully spawned. Though juvenile Atlantic salmon have been found in three streams, they are not considered to be "established" in British Columbia. In total, Atlantic salmon which have escaped from pens have been observed in approximately 77 streams/rivers in British Columbia and 12 streams in Washington State. To date, no naturally-produced juvenile or adult Atlantic salmon have been found in Washington, in spite of extensive monitoring of outmigrating Pacific salmon smolts in the streams and rivers of the state.

Future Management of Atlantic Salmon

  • WDFW has a mandate to protect and manage the fish and wildlife of the state. The agency has new authority to carry out its stewardship responsibility in the aquaculture arena. Second Substitute House Bill 1499 gave WDFW the authority to enter into negotiated rule making with the private industry in order to help prevent escapes, manage the escapees if and when they occur, regulate the species of fin fish reared in marine pens, and establish an Atlantic Salmon Watch program similar to the program in operation in British Columbia. The results of the negotiated rule making will be presented to the 2002 Washington State Legislature.

More Information:

For more information- Call Andy Appleby, WDFW Aquaculture Coordinator (360-902-2663)