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Originally published Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 4:00 PM

Protect wild salmon stocks from industrial fish farms

Efforts to promote and sustain the recovery of Northwest salmon stocks are undercut by a proposal for a huge new farmed fish operation, and fears among scientists after the discovery of a potentially devastating virus.

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PUGET Sound does not need another giant fish farm to produce Atlantic salmon as the region nurtures the return of wild salmon and worries about a nascent salmon virus.

Seattle Times reporter Craig Welch laid out plans by an Oregon company, Pacific Seafood, to more than double the amount of farmed fish grown in local waters. The proposal would produce 10 million pounds of salmon a year in cages in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The news comes as two Canadian researchers found two wild sockeye smolts were carrying a highly contagious virus, one related to a catastrophic outbreak in Chile among farmed fish.

The timing could not be any more disturbing. Billions have been spent in the Northwest to preserve and restore wild salmon runs, with the latest outlay of money and optimism invested in the removal of dams on the Elwha and White Salmon rivers.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, along with Alaska's two senators, have asked Congress to require federal agencies to investigate the hazards from the latest revelations of a virus risk and report back in six months.

The threat to Pacific Northwest jobs and local economies makes the research a priority.

Efforts to convert marine aquaculture into a giant export business should not be done at the risk of harming — devastating — the restoration of healthy wild fisheries.

Industrial fish farms have a legacy of trouble around the world: diseases, pollution, escaping nonnative farmed fish in the wild population, antibiotics, and the consumption of wild stocks to feed farmed fish.

Organizations, such as the Mangrove Action Project of Port Angeles, have worked for years to sound the alarm about the hazards of using aquaculture to replace, not supplement, wild fisheries.

Based on hard lessons, these concerns are indeed global. Recent commentary in the Scottish Daily Mail describes farmed fish as second only to Scotch whisky as an export earner, but a government proposal under review would ban fish farms from areas that are important to wild fish stocks.

Scotland is looking at a law already in place in Norway that would require publication of levels of sea lice associated with specific fish farms.

One developing option to vast marine farms are recirculating aquaculture systems. These closed operations allow filtration of water for reuse. Better ways to deal with waste, antibiotics and other chemicals without the potential for contaminating wild stocks.

The shock expressed by regional scientists at the discovery of a potentially deadly virus with a devastating history among Atlantic salmon has to be respected.

Cantwell is right to demand a federal investigation into the hazards. Protect the wild stocks of Northwest salmon as they get a fighting chance to make a healthy recovery.

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