Salmon on the lam: drivers of escaped farmed fish abundance in rivers.
The production of Atlantic salmon in aquaculture has grown substantially over the last 40 years. The unintentional release of domesticated salmon poses a significant risk to the long-term persistence of wild Atlantic salmon populations through ecological interactions and genetic introgression. Our ability to link aquaculture production to farmed escaped salmon in rivers is still limited and hinders identifying the appropriate production capacity of salmon aquaculture to reduce unwanted interactions between wild and escaped Atlantic salmon. Here we use a 14-year dataset of farmed escapee abundance in rivers to model how the a priori selected covariables of wild salmon abundance, aquaculture intensity, river discharge, hydropower and fjord placement of the river affects escapee abundance across 54 rivers in western Norway. Then, we evaluate the predictive strength of the model to provide context for its use to minimize escapees. We found that the abundance of escaped farmed Atlantic salmon in rivers is correlated to aquaculture intensity. Furthermore, the abundance of wild Atlantic salmon, mean yearly discharge, and the interaction between fjord placement and wild salmon abundance were important predictors of escapee abundance in rivers. The model was 40% accurate when predicting the abundance of farmed escaped salmon in rivers. However, the accuracy improved to 75% when using risk categories derived from modelled intrusion rates that induced long-term genetic changes to the wild population (low < 4%, medium 4%-10%, and high > 10% escaped farmed salmon). Synthesis and applications. This study links aquaculture production, at relevant spatiotemporal scales (75 km from rivers), to the abundance of escaped farmed Atlantic salmon in rivers, and provides governmental agencies with a tool to help regulate domesticated salmon production based on the carrying capacity of the system to buffer against introgression between conspecifics. Furthermore, understanding this relationship will be beneficial when establishing new aquaculture sites in pristine ecosystems where they would overlap with wild Atlantic salmon. Finally, future mitigation efforts should continue to focus on new technologies (e.g. triploid females) that can eliminate the risk of introgression without limiting aquaculture production.