On the dock in Buenaventura, Colombia, the fisherman needed help identifying his catch. “I don’t have any clue what this is,” he said, holding a roughly 50-centimeter-long, grayish-brown fish. Gustavo Castellanos-Galindo, a fish ecologist, recalls the conversation from last October. “I said, ‘Well, this is a cobia, and it shouldn’t be here.’ ”
The juvenile cobia had probably escaped from a farm off the coast of Ecuador that began operating earlier in 2015, Castellanos-Galindo and colleagues at the World Wildlife Fund in Cali, Colombia, reported in March in BioInvasions Records. Intruders had probably cut a net cage, perhaps intending to catch and sell the fish. Roughly 1,500 cobia fled, according to the aquaculture company Ocean Farm in Manta, Ecuador, which runs the farm. Cobia are fast-swimming predators that can migrate long distances and grow to about 2 meters long. The species is not native to the eastern Pacific, but since the escape, the fugitives have been spotted from Panama to Peru.
The cobia getaway is not an isolated incident. Aquaculture, the farming of fish and other aquatic species, is rapidly expanding — both in marine and inland farms. It has begun to overtake wild-catch fishing as the main source of seafood for the dinner table. Fish farmed in the ocean, such as salmon, sea bass, sea bream and other species, are raised in giant offshore pens that can be breached by storms, predators, fish that nibble the nets, employee error and thieves. Global numbers for escapes are hard to come by, but one study of six European countries over three years found that nearly 9 million fish escaped from sea cages, according to a report published in Aquaculture in 2015.
Researchers worry that these releases could harm wildlife, but they don’t have a lot of data to measure long-term effects. Many questions remain. A study out of Norway published in July suggests that some domesticated escapees have mated extensively with wild fish of the same species, which could weaken the wild population. Scientists also are investigating whether escaped fish could gobble up or displace native fish.
Worst-case scenario: Escaped fish spread over large areas and wreak havoc on other species. From toxic toads overrunning Australia and Madagascar (SN Online: 2/22/16) to red imported fire ants in the United States, invasive species are one of the planet’s biggest threats to biodiversity, and they cost billions of dollars in damage and management expenses. Not every introduced species has such drastic effects, but invasives can be tough to eliminate.
While researchers try to get a handle on the impact of farm escapes, farmers are working to better contain the fish and reduce the ecological impact of the runaways. Some countries have tightened their aquaculture regulations. Researchers are proposing strategies ranging from new farm designs to altering fish genetics. As aquaculture becomes a widespread means to feed the planet’s protein-hungry people, the ecological effects are getting more attention.
If escapees weaken native wildlife, “we’re solving a food issue globally and creating another problem,” says population geneticist Kevin Glover of Norway’s Institute of Marine Research in Bergen. Norway, a top producer of marine fish, has done much of the research on farm escapes.
Not born to be wild
Fish farming is big business. In 2014, the industry churned out 73.8 million metric tons of aquatic animals worth about $160 billion, according to a report in July from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome.
Nearly two-thirds of this food comes from inland freshwater farms such as ponds, used in Asia for thousands of years. The rest is grown on marine and coastal farms, where farmed fish live in brackish ponds, lagoons or cages in the ocean.
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Freshwater fish can escape from pond farms during events such as floods. Some escapees, such as tilapia, have hurt native species by competing with and eating wild fish. But sea farming has its own set of problems. The physical environment is harsh and cages are exposed to damaging ocean waves and wind, plus boats and predator attacks.
Salmon is one of the most heavily farmed marine fish. In some areas, the number of farmed salmon dwarfs wild populations. Norway’s marine farms hold about 380 million Atlantic salmon, while the country’s rivers are home to only about 500,000 wild spawning Atlantic salmon.
In the four decades that farmers have been cultivating Atlantic salmon, farmed strains have diverged from their wild cousins. When both are raised in standard hatchery conditions, farm-raised salmon can grow about three to five times heavier than wild salmon in the first year of life.
Salmon raised in farms also tend to be less careful; for instance, after being exposed to an artificial predator, they emerge more quickly from hiding places than wild fish. This risky behavior may have arisen partly because the fish haven’t faced the harsh challenges of nature. “The whole idea of a hatchery is that everything gets to survive,” says Philip McGinnity, a molecular ecologist at University College Cork in Ireland. Farmed fish don’t know better.
These differences are bad news for hybrid offspring and wild fish. In early experiments, hybrid offspring of farmed and wild salmon tended to fare poorly in the wild. In the 1990s, McGinnity’s team measured these fish’s “lifetime success” in spawning rivers and the ocean. Compared with wild salmon, hybrid offspring had a lifetime success rate about a fourth to a half as high. Around the same time, a team in Norway found that when wild fish swam with farmed fish in their midst, the number of wild offspring that survived long enough to leave the river to head to the ocean was about one-third lower than expected, perhaps because the fast-growing farmed offspring gobbled a lot of food or claimed territory.
“There was truly reason to be concerned,” says Ian Fleming, an evolutionary ecologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada, who was part of the Norway team.
Recent work supports the idea that farmed fish could crowd out wild fish by hogging territory in a river. In a study published last year in the Journal of Fish Biology, researchers found that the survival rate of young wild salmon dropped from 74 to 53 percent when the fish were raised in the same confined stream channels as young farmed salmon rather than on their own. When the channels had an exit, more wild fish departed the stream when raised with farmed salmon than when raised alone.
“These are fish that give up the territory and have to leave,” says study coauthor Kjetil Hindar, a salmon biologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Trondheim.
A weaker mix
To find out how much escaped fish had genetically mingled with wild fish, Glover’s team obtained historical samples of salmon scales collected from 20 rivers in Norway before aquaculture became common. The researchers compared the DNA in the scales with that of wild salmon caught from 2001 to 2010 in those rivers.
Wild salmon in five of the 20 rivers had become more genetically similar to farmed fish over about one to four decades, the team reported in 2013 in BMC Genetics. In the most affected population, 47 percent of the wild fish’s genome originated from farmed strains. “We’re talking about more or less a complete swamping of the natural gene pool,” Glover says. Imagine buckets of paint — red, blue, green — representing each river, he says, and pouring gray paint into each one.
Interbreeding was less of an issue where wild fish were plentiful. The farmed fish aren’t good at spawning, so they won’t mate much if a lot of wild competitors are present. But in sparse populations, the farm-raised salmon may be able to “muscle in,” Glover says.
A larger study by Hindar’s team, published in July in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, showed that genetic mixing between wild and farmed salmon is happening on a large scale in Norway. Among 109 wild salmon populations, about half had significant amounts of genetic material from farmed strains that had escaped. In 27 populations, more than 10 percent of the fish’s DNA came from farmed fish.
What does that mean for the offspring? Each salmon population has adapted to survive in its habitat — a certain river, at a specific temperature range or acidity level. When farmed fish mate with wild fish, the resulting offspring may not be as well-suited to live in that environment. Over generations, as the wild population becomes more similar to farmed salmon, scientists worry that the fish’s survival could drop.
Scientists at several institutions in Norway are exploring whether genetic mixing changes the wild salmon’s survival rates, growth and other traits. Making a definitive link will be difficult. Other threats such as climate change and pollution also are putting stress on the fish.
If escapes can be stopped, wild salmon may rebound. Natural selection will weed out the weakest fish and leave the strongest, fish that got a lucky combination of hardy traits from their parents. But Glover worries that, just as a beach can’t recover if oil is spilled every year, the wild population can’t rally if farmed fish are continually pumped in: “Mother Nature cannot clean up if you constantly pollute.”
In places where the species being farmed is not naturally abundant, researchers are taking a look at whether escapes could upset native ecosystems. For instance, European sea bass sometimes slip away from farms in the Canary Islands, where (except for a few small populations on the eastern end) the species doesn’t normally live.
In February 2010, storms battered cages at the island of La Palma, “like a giant tore up all the nets,” says Kilian Toledo-Guedes, a marine ecologist at the University of Alicante in Spain. About 1.5 million fish — mostly sea bass — reportedly swam free.
A couple of weeks later, the number of sea bass in nearby waters was “astounding,” he says. “I couldn’t see the bottom.” Sea bass density in waters near the farm was 162 times higher than it had been at the same time the previous year, his team reported in 2014 in Fisheries Management and Ecology. Fisheries data showing a spike in catches of sea bass by local fishermen that January also suggested that large unreported escapes had occurred before the storm.
Despite being raised in captivity, where they are fed pellets, some of the farmed fish learn to hunt. The researchers found that escaped sea bass caught four months after the 2010 farm breakdown had eaten mostly crabs. Sea bass from earlier escapes that had been living in the wild for several years had eaten plenty of fish as well. The results, reported in 2014 in Marine Environmental Research, suggest that escapees start by catching easy targets such as crustaceans and then learn to nab faster-moving fish.
So far, though, scientists have not seen clear signs that the escapees damaged the ecosystem. The density of sea bass around La Palma had fallen drastically by October 2010 and continued to decline the next year, probably because some fish couldn’t find enough to eat, while others were caught by fishermen or predators, according to a 2015 study by another team in the Journal of Aquaculture Research & Development.
Catches of small fish that sea bass eat, such as parrot fish, did not drop significantly after the 2010 escape or after a similar large escape in 1999, says study coauthor Ricardo Haroun, a marine conservation researcher at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain. While he agrees that the industry should try to prevent escapes, he sees no evidence that the runaways are suppressing wild species.
If the escaped fish can breed and multiply, the risk of harming native species rises. In a study published in Marine Ecology in 2012, Toledo-Guedes and colleagues reported finding sexually mature sea bass around the central island of Tenerife. But Haroun says the water is too warm and salty for the fish to reproduce, and his team did not see any juveniles during their surveys of La Palma, nor have they heard any reports of juveniles in the area. Toledo-Guedes says that more extensive studies, such as efforts to catch larvae, are needed before reproduction can be ruled out.
Similarly, researchers can’t predict the consequences of the cobia escape in Ecuador. The water is the right temperature for reproduction, and these predators eat everything from crabs to squid. Castellanos-Galindo believes that farming cobia in the area is a mistake because escapes will probably continue, and the fish may eventually form a stable population in the wild that could have unpredictable effects on native prey and other parts of the ecosystem. He points to invasive lionfish as a cautionary tale: These predators, probably released from personal aquariums in Florida, have exploded across the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic and are devouring small reef fish.
The situation for cobia may be different. Local sharks and other predators will probably eat the escapees, whereas lionfish have few natural predators in their new territory, argues Diego Ardila, production manager at Ocean Farm. Milton Love, a marine fish ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also notes that lionfish settle in one small area, but cobia keep moving, so prey populations might recover after the cobia have moved on.
Not all introduced species become established or invasive, and it can take decades for the effects to become apparent. “Time will tell what happens,” says Andrew Sellers, a marine ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. “Basically, it’s just up to the fish.”
A slippery problem
Once fish have fled, farmers sometimes enlist fishermen to help capture the escapees. Professional fishermen caught nearly one-quarter of the sea bass and sea bream that escaped after the Canary Islands breach. On average, though, only 8 percent of fish are recaptured after an escape, according to a study published in June in Reviews in Aquaculture. Given the recapture failures, farmers and policy makers should focus on preventing escapes and maintaining no-fishing zones around farms to create a “wall of mouths,” local predators that can eat runaway fish, says coauthor Tim Dempster, a sustainable aquaculture researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Technical improvements could help. The Norwegian government rolled out a marine aquaculture standard in 2004 that required improvements, such as engineering nets, moorings and other equipment to withstand unusually strong storms. Compared with the period 2001–2006, the average number of Atlantic salmon escaping annually from 2007–2009 dropped by more than half. Ocean Farm in Ecuador has tightened security, increased cage inspections and switched to stronger net materials; no cobia have escaped since last year’s break-in, says Samir Kuri, the company’s operations manager.
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Some companies raise fish in contained tanks on land to avoid polluting marine waters, reduce exposure to diseases and control growth conditions. But the industry is largely reluctant to adopt this option until costs come down. The money saved from reducing escapes probably wouldn’t make up for the current start-up expense of moving to land. The 242 escape events analyzed in the 2015 Aquaculture study cost farmers about $160 million. By one estimate, establishing a land-based closed-containment farm producing about 4,000 metric tons of salmon annually — a small haul by industry standards — would cost $54 million; setting up a similar-sized sea-cage farm costs $30 million.
Another solution is to raise fish that have three sets of chromosomes. These triploid fish, produced by subjecting fertilized eggs to a pressure shock, can’t reproduce and therefore wouldn’t proliferate or pollute the wild gene pool.
“The only ultimate solution is sterility,” Norway’s Glover says. “Accidents happen.” Escaped triploid salmon are less likely to disrupt mating by distracting females from wild males, the researchers wrote in Biological Invasions in May. But triploid fish don’t grow as well when the water is warmer than about 15° Celsius, and consumers might be reluctant to accept these altered salmon.
Although the ecological effects of fish farm escapes may take a long time to play out, most researchers agree that we shouldn’t take chances with the health of the oceans, which already face threats such as climate change, pollution and overfishing. With the aquaculture industry expanding at about 6 percent per year, farmers will have to keep improving their practices if they are to stay ahead of the runaway fish.
This story appears in the September 17, 2016, issue of Science News with the headline, “Runaway fish: Escapes from marine farms raise concerns about native wildlife.”