Something fishy about this pollution

  Industrial waste. Raw sewage. Atlantic salmon. One of those wasn't considered an environmental threat until recently.

Environmentalists from Washington charge that escapees from large floating salmon farms in Puget Sound should be regulated just like factory and sewage-plant discharges. They say Atlantic salmon raised in hatcheries compete with wild stocks, spread diseases through accumulated wastes and dilute the gene pool. Now, activists have won the backing of the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board: The agency recently declared escaped Atlantic salmon a "living pollutant."

"The Atlantic salmon could pose either a genetic or a competitive danger," said hearing board judge Suzanne Skinner.

But aquaculture proponents say wastes from the floating pens are quickly diluted in Puget Sound. They also contend that competition isn't an issue because hatchery salmon can't catch food in the wild.

"The potential for disease is also very minimal," says Bob Newman, water quality inspector for the Washington Department of Ecology. He points out that Atlantic salmon eggs must be inspected and declared "disease-free" before they are accepted for farming.

Both sides will present their cases at a pollution control board meeting in December. If the state board rules that hatchery salmon harm wild species, the aquaculture companies would have to apply for permits and might also have to move their pens onshore.

*Jamie Murray