Cooke Aquaculture Pacific knew its Cypress Island facility was “vulnerable” before the spill that sent tens of thousands of invasive Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. Now, the future of Atlantic salmon farming in Washington is in doubt.

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Cooke Aquaculture Pacific knew it had problems at its Cypress Island fish farm before the catastrophic failure that spilled tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.

“The farm site No. 2 was identified as the first priority for upgrades. We knew it was at the end of its life cycle and it needed upgrades right away, and we were in the process of doing that,” company spokesman Chuck Brown said this week.

But the company never got the chance.

Instead, the farm capsized the weekend of Aug. 19, with 305,000 Atlantic salmon inside. The company collected 142,176 in all from its nets. The rest escaped.

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Though evidence of damage to native fish runs is sparse, the accident has sparked an outcry to shut down the Atlantic salmon fish-farming industry in Washington. The state already has said it won’t allow new or expanded farms until further review, and 20 Western Washington tribes with treaty-protected fisheries say they want Puget Sound farms shut down entirely.

It also comes as the industry is under intense scrutiny across the border in British Columbia. First Nations people on Aug. 25 began an occupation of a net pen farm at Swanson Island near Alert Bay, demanding permits be revoked for the farms in their local waters because of concern about disease, fish waste and parasites harming wild stocks.

On Thursday, the occupation expanded to a second farm on the B.C. coast as the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw, led by Hereditary Chief Willie Moon, occupied another Marine Harvest salmon farm, off northeastern Vancouver Island. The move brought support from other tribal nations. “This is an assertion of their authority in their traditional lands and waters,” after the Cypress Island failure, said a Thursday statement by the chiefs of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council.

The Washington fish escape made waves at Shishalh Nation, too, where fishermen were surprised and alarmed to find three escaped Atlantic salmon in their nets on Aug. 27, in the Sabine Channel, 80 nautical miles from Cooke’s spill. Two of the fish were females, full of eggs. The tribe opposes any farmed salmon in its waters.

In Washington, 20 tribes also said all Atlantic salmon farms in Puget Sound should be closed, with no more allowed.

“Just how many fish got loose is unknown. Their escape threatens our already weak stocks of native Pacific salmon as well as our treaty fishing rights,” said a statement from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

“Little state government oversight, lack of coordination and a rapid-response plan, along with poor communication by Cooke Aquaculture delayed quick action to contain the fish, allowing them to spread throughout Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington Coast and southern British Columbia.”

The statement also said Cooke should be fined for negligence and made to pay for all clean up costs.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said he thinks it is past time to take action against Atlantic salmon farming in Washington, adding that he and others in Olympia on both sides of the aisle have legislation in the works for the coming legislative session. “I am totally opposed to net pen aquaculture of invasive species in the Salish Sea.”

Impact still unknown

The impact of the spill remains unknown on wild fish runs, some of which are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“You don’t know are they going to go upriver, are they are going to eat fish or not eat fish, or compete for food,” said Lorraine Loomis, fisheries manager for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and chairwoman of the commission.

Swinomish chairman Brian Cladoosby was out fishing this week, “trying to kill these things.” He said fishermen are catching Atlantics with bellies full of native Pacific salmon fingerlings.

Washington is no stranger to farmed Atlantic salmon escapes, with spills in 1996, 1997 and 1999, including one of 369,000 fish. So far, no instance of crossbreeding between Pacific and Atlantic salmon has been documented.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife once tried to establish Atlantic salmon runs to stoke fishing opportunity, releasing the foreign fish in Washington waters in 1951, 1980 and 1981. Many releases also were made in lakes. But none resulted in established runs.

Research to develop a marine net-pen industry began in the late 1960s, beginning in Puget Sound near Manchester by the National Marine Fisheries Service — now NOAA fisheries, the federal agency charged with protecting Washington’s imperiled wild runs.

Atlantic salmon, through intensive breeding programs, emerged as the species most amenable. Washington today is the leading farmed Atlantic salmon producer in the nation. California and Alaska ban the industry. No Atlantic salmon farms operate in Oregon.

Concern about the effects of farmed Atlantic salmon on wild Puget Sound stocks have dogged the industry in recent decades. A September 1999 white paper by WDFW scientists found that evidence available before the summer of 1998 suggested escaped Atlantic salmon were not colonizing local watersheds and were not significantly impacting native fish. “However in 1998 and in 1999 naturally produced Atlantic salmon were discovered in streams on Vancouver Island, British Columbia,” the scientists wrote.

John Volpe, an invasion ecologist at the University of Victoria, who found those fish, noted in an interview this week that anyone who says they know anything for sure about the impact of farmed salmon escapes “is either speaking from emotion or politics.” That is because so little scientific research has been done on the topic, Volpe said.

Mike Rust, NOAA Aquaculture Science Coordinator, said the U.S. industry has improved its practices to clean up the farms. “They have changed a lot in the last 40 years,” Rust said. In Washington, the farms have to meet pollution discharge permit standards and report all use of drugs and chemicals to state regulators used in the fish and their feed.

Farmed salmon also convert feed to flesh more efficiently than other livestock, and are cleaner, too, Rust said. “If you look at them next to pigs and chickens and cows, they are actually very sustainable and clean.”

Mixed reaction

Reaction to farmed Atlantic salmon in a region that reveres wild fish is mixed. Whole Foods has cut prices on its “farm fresh” salmon this week to attract new customers as it changed ownership. Meanwhile, some Puget Sound chefs and restaurant owners, including Tom Douglas and Duke’s Chowder House restaurants, won’t even serve it. “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig,” said Duke Moscrip, Duke’s founder. “There are so many issues with the product. I’ve seen so many sea lice on farmed salmon you have to throw it away. And the color and the flavor and texture just aren’t there.”

For Washington tribes the fish are both a competitive and ecological threat, and the spill has raised ire.

At Lummi Nation, tribal members last week were in an emergency fishery chasing down Atlantic salmon.

Jay Julius, a Lummi tribal council member and lifelong fisherman, had caught more than 20,000 pounds of Atlantics but was too distressed by the spill to go home and rest. “We know how salmon think, how to work the tides, but these fish are different,” he said, navigating to a new spot to set his nets.

Jewell Praying Wolf James, a Lummi tribal master carver, said the spill felt like a repeat of history. “There are fewer and fewer Puget Sound chinook and coho returning to the spawning habitat, it is open and available, and becomes ripe for colonization, just like what happened to us,” James said. “And private corporations are making a large profit off it. It is like when the settlers came.”

Hilary Franz, commissioner of public lands at the Department of Natural Resources, which holds all the leases for the Puget Sound farms, said she had “grave concerns” about Atlantic salmon fish farms on state-owned aquatic lands.

“DNR will not be authorizing any new farms, or expansions to existing, Atlantic salmon net-pen structures on state-owned aquatic lands until it can be shown that this activity is in the best interest of the state,” Franz said. “It’s clear to me that thousands of Atlantic salmon swimming in the Puget Sound is not in the best interest of the state.”

Orientation is key

The company last year acquired the three farms at Cypress Island and five others in Puget Sound from Icicle Seafoods. Fish farming had been underway by various previous owners at the location for three decades, and the equipment that failed was installed 17 years ago, Brown said.

A key issue for Cooke was the orientation of farm No. 2, broadside to the current, which it had intended to change. “We wanted to rotate it so it was better situated,” Brown said.

The company intended to turn the farm and put in all new equipment at a cost of $1.4 million right after the harvest that should have been going on just about now, and its permits were pending, Brown said.

Instead, the company scrambled at the end of July to make emergency repairs to the farm, working to stabilize it after it had begun to drift. “We ran into a situation with very heavy currents and the farm did drift and move,” Brown said. “We were able to replace some of the moorings and the anchor lines and get it back to a stable condition to where we thought it would be OK.”

But on Aug. 19, the farm again started to drift. “The magnitude wasn’t really clear at first, where this was going; your hope is something is going wrong, but you are going to get it under control quickly,” Brown said. Instead the farm collapsed the next day.

Cooke has hired contractors to salvage the wreck, and is under orders from the DNR to clean up its mess by Sept. 24.

On a recent morning, seagulls circled and crows picked at the twisted, floating debris. A crane on a barge lifted a walkway from the farm high in the air to pile it on wreckage heaped on deck. Cables, twisted line and fouled nets lurched in the current. Nearby, more than half a million fish jumped in the company’s two remaining active farms at the site.

Brown said the company knows it needs to rebuild trust, “and we hope we have the opportunity to do that.

“We are deeply sorry about the incident at our Cypress Island farm and we are focused on properly and safely removing the fish and equipment from the farm and working with tribes, experts and agencies to meet our obligations.”

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific is part of Cook Aquaculture, a global fish-farming company that is the largest producer of Atlantic salmon in North America. Cooke’s recent acquisition in Washington is intended to help the company reach new markets and continue its expansion, Brown said.

Cooke Aquaculture is already big, with operations in Chile, Spain, Scotland, Atlantic Canada and Maine. The company is vertically integrated, from the eggs it hatches for its fish to the young fry it grows up on land to stock its net pens, and even the equipment it manufactures, and trucks to bring the fish to market — mostly grocery retailers and mid- to large-size food service distributors.

Founded in 1985 by one family with 5,000 fish in New Brunswick, the company today has about $1.8 billion in annual sales — including more than $31 million in Washington, where Cooke has 80 employees.

When it arrived in Puget Sound last year, Cooke had intended to continue its practice of acquiring farms and upgrading them for top production — just as was planned at Site 2.

“We buy them, we review them for how they can be improved. We took over here, and we were investing here, that was all in process, and very much part of the plan,” Brown said.

“Obviously, that didn’t work.”