The company initially said Saturday that 4,000 to 5,000 of the nearly 2-year-old fish, weighing from 8 to 10 pounds, had escaped several damaged net pens in the farm. But by Sunday afternoon, "the whole thing came apart."

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The fish spill from an Atlantic salmon farm near Cypress Island is much bigger than initially thought, after the entire farm was destroyed over the weekend.

“It’s basically a salvage operation,” said Nell Halse, vice president, communications for Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, which owns and operates several Atlantic salmon fish farms in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, including the Deepwater Bay facility off Cypress Island.

The company initially said Saturday that 4,000 to 5,000 of the nearly 2-year-old fish, weighing from 8 to 10 pounds, had escaped several damaged net pens in the farm. The farm held a total of more than 300,000 fish weighing some 3 million pounds.

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But on “Sunday afternoon, the whole thing came apart,” she said of the fish farm. “That is when we realized we were in a really serious situation. The numbers started out low and we still don’t know the full number, but there is clearly a lot of them out there. Very, very much more.”

The farm “totally collapsed,” she said. “It is a very difficult situation. These guys are farmers and they have invested a year and a half in taking care of these animals, and now they have lost them — and seeing the devastation of the farm, it is a hard thing.”

Atlantic salmon escaped from this Cooke Aquaculture net pen over the weekend off Cypress Island. This photo was taken Tuesday morning, August 22, 2017. (Beau Garreau / DAKO. 5TUDIOS)
Atlantic salmon escaped from this Cooke Aquaculture net pen over the weekend off Cypress Island. This photo was taken Tuesday morning, August 22, 2017. (Beau Garreau / DAKO. 5TUDIOS)

The company, which bought the salmon farm about a year ago, last month flew in experts to repair it because it had begun to drift, Halse said. Additional anchors were installed, she noted. “The verdict was that the farm was good to go until harvest,” she said, then just months away.

Scientists debunked the statement from Cooke on Tuesday that “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” caused the damage.

Parker MacCready, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, noted tide data do not support the company’s claim. “The data speak for themselves: there were large tidal ranges around the day of the eclipse, but not out of the ordinary, and in fact they were smaller than during some recent months.”

Jonathan White, author of “Tides the Science and Spirit of the Ocean” (Trinity University Press, 2017), said there were 105 tides this year as large or larger than those experienced over the weekend. “If they were not prepared for this tide, they were not prepared for any tide,” he said.

Kurt Beardslee, of the Wild Fish Conservancy, which opposes fish farming as well as a planned expansion by the company in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, blamed the company for inadequate equipment and maintenance.

“It’s an engineering issue. All engineering is about adding safety buffers,” Beardslee said. “They have this great benefit of using this water, this resource, and they have the obligation to engineer (the facility) so these failures won’t happen.”

The company had more to say Wednesday about the cause. “We don’t want to debate the data about the tides,” Halse said. “It says what it says. Whatever the reason, the guys experienced something they had not experienced in their memory,” she said of farm employees.

“There obviously is not one reason why this happened; it was not just the tides. We will be doing a full assessment as to what really caused it, and most importantly, what we can do to make sure it never happens again.” Meanwhile, a fishing frenzy is under way, with some anglers eager to get the fish for their table and others mopping the Atlantic salmon up like a pollutant.

Some found passions against farmed salmon undercut a golden opportunity in the no-limit fishery. “I had no idea there would be that many,” said Nik Mardesich, a commercial gillnetter who kept pulling up Atlantics by the hundreds in his net while he was out for native chinook Monday night. However, he couldn’t find a buyer for his bounty on Tuesday morning.

“They won’t even take them for crab bait,” he said of the Atlantic salmon. “I don’t want to just throw them on the beach, so I am trying to give them away,” Mardesich said.

He resorted to putting a sign reading “free fish” on his pickup at the Guemes ferry, and passing the salmon out in garbage bags.

A commercial fisherman all his life, he has his own objections to net-pen Atlantic salmon. “I have no objection to farmed fish,” Mardesich said. “But there is a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way is open pens in wild salmon migration routes. The right way is a closed system, on land.”

The Lummi Nation mounted a cleanup fishery Tuesday, deploying boats to mop up the fish like an oil spill. “This type of incident is unacceptable,” said Timothy Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Nation business council. Halse and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife maintain the fish are safe to eat and pose little risk to the environment.

However, the Washington Department of Ecology considers the escaped fish a pollutant, and the company could potentially face penalties for the incident, said Larry Altose, an agency spokesman. “They are supposed to be released to the store,” he said of the Atlantic salmon. “Not the Sound.”