The mighty December Northeaster rocked Maine's Machias Bay, buckling steel cages that held thousands of farm-raised fish and uprooting the pens' moorings.
By the storm's end, conservationists' worst fear for this burgeoning industry had come true: More than 100,000 fish swam out of the pens into the wild - the largest known escape of aquaculture fish in the eastern United States.
Some of the young fish, fattened up for restaurant dinner plates, were quickly consumed by hungry seals. But the unknown number that survived have the potential to severely weaken future generations of wild salmon in three Maine rivers. If the young fish make their way to the rivers when they get older, they may mate with the wild salmon.
But word of the accident, which environmentalists consider a potential ecological disaster, reached federal officials only this month, partly because of loopholes in the law and a Maine state official's forgetfulness. Yesterday, one day after they learned of the accident, the conservation groups Atlantic Salmon Federation, Trout Unlimited, and Conservation Law Foundation called for a moratorium on new fish farms and an overhaul of the entire regulation system.
''The point to be made is it looks like the feds were right. Salmon do escape,'' said Paul Nickerson, a US Fish and Wildlife biologist specializing in endangered species.
The US government in November listed wild salmon in eight Maine rivers as endangered, in part because of concern about the impact of the aquaculture industry in eastern Maine. ''This is what we've been afraid of,'' Nickerson said.
The fear is that farm-raised fish, bred for market qualities quite unlike the hardiness that wild salmon must have to survive, will pass their weaknesses on by mating with the few wild fish left.
Industry officials have previously argued that escapes from farm pens are rare, and interbreeding with wild fish even rarer.
Atlantic Salmon of Maine officials, from whose pens the fish escaped, said they lost close to $1 million when the fish swam away about five miles off Machias. What's more, they said, the accident could have been prevented if the federal government had allowed them to build the stronger, more weather-resistant cages they asked for last year. The Army Corps of Engineers turned down the request because construction could disturb a nearby island's rare eagle nest, according to Des FitzGerald, who runs Atlantic Salmon of Maine, and several sources. Corps officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
''Earthquakes happen,'' said FitzGerald. ''We didn't want to lose those fish. We want to keep them in pens more than anyone else does. But we should have been allowed to build that stronger pen.''
FitzGerald and other fish farmers have long said that even in the unlikely event of a fish farm escape, there would be little genetic threat to the wild salmon - because they have already been virtually eliminated and are sustained only by annual releases of new salmon raised in hatcheries. Even Governor Angus King has joined them, saying decades of salmon stocking in Maine's rivers has made the question of a ''wild'' genetic bloodline all but moot.
However, environmentalists counter that the wild salmon remain genetic marvels capable of surviving an arduous journey to Greenland, only to return to the exact river of their birth to reproduce. Fish that have been bred to grow quickly in a pen shouldn't mingle with them, they argue.
While federal officials were concerned about the escape yesterday, they said it could have been worse. If the fish had been sexually mature and it had been spawning season, they might have headed straight for the three closest rivers with wild salmon populations: the Dennys, Machias, and East Machias.
Still, no one knows how penned fish will act in the wild. Befuddled and used to being fed three times a day, they may be eaten quickly. But some could survive and there is no telling if they would have the instinct to head to a river to spawn, go back to the cage they were raised in, or do something else.
''We don't know what will happen,'' said Mary Colligan, an endangered-species coordinator for National Marine Fisheries Service.
The release is the latest in a line of controversies touching aquaculture in Maine. Launched in the 1980s, the $65 million industry is trying to cash in on growing worldwide consumption of farm-raised fish as wild stocks collapse. It is now the second-largest fishery (behind lobsters) in Maine, with 45 coastal sites where salmon are raised.
Increasing scrutiny has popped up with the fish pens. There are now seven government agencies planning to institute or bolster regulation of the fish farms - and FitzGerald and other farmers say they may not be able to weather them. Meanwhile, a lawsuit charges that concentrated fish waste, extra fish food, and chemicals used to clean the fish are streaming into the sea.
Now, however, escapees have caught public attention. Last month, 3,000 to 5,000 fish escaped from a pen in Eastport, Maine.
''Based on these two events alone, the number of aquaculture escapees this fall is 1,000 times the number of documented wild adults,'' said Andrew Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
The smaller release was reported promptly to federal authorities, but the large escape highlights a major loophole in regulations for fish farms. Despite the concern about escapees, fish farms are not obligated to report them. FitzGerald did call the state of Maine as a courtesy when the 100,000 salmon escaped. But an official there didn't tell the federal government until this month because, he said, he first wanted to get more information and then it slipped his mind.
''The state's failure to report this event for over seven weeks highlights the need for federal involvement in aquaculture permitting to protect Maine's wild salmon,'' said Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited. ''We need this now.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company