Thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon were accidentally released into the waters between Anacortes and the San Juan Islands, and officials are asking people to catch as many as possible. Tribal fishers, concerned about native salmon populations, call the accident “a devastation.”
It’s open season on Atlantic salmon as the public is urged to help mop up a salmon spill from a damaged net pen holding 305,000 fish at a Cooke Aquaculture fish farm near Cypress Island.
Lummi fishers out for chinook on Sunday near Samish, south of Bellingham Bay, were shocked to pull up the spotted, silvery-sided Atlantic salmon — escapees that turned up in their nets again Monday.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is urging the public to catch as many of the fish as possible, with no limit on size or number. The fish are about 10 pounds each. No one knows how many escaped from the floating pen, but the net had some 3 million pounds of fish in it when it imploded about 4 p.m. Saturday, said Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for the WDFW.
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Cooke, in an estimate to WDFW Monday, put the number of escaped fish at 4,000 to 5,000, according to Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for the WDFW. The department has been monitoring the situation and crafting a spill-response plan with Cooke, Warren said.
Anchor lines to the pens broke Saturday afternoon, and walkways for servicing the pens tipped, making it unsafe for employees even to get in the water and assess the scope of the spill, Warren said.
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In a statement Tuesday morning, Cooke said, “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” caused the damage. Cooke said the salmon escaped after a “structural failure” of a net pen.
“It appears that many fish are still contained within the nets,” Cooke said in the statement. “It will not be possible to confirm exact numbers of fish losses until harvesting is completed and an inventory of fish in the pens has been conducted.”
An aerial view of the net-pen structure taken by KIRO-TV shows widespread damage, which Warren, after viewing the video, called “severely compromised.”
The salmon escapes come as the company is considering a controversial net-pen operation in the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Port Angeles, east of the Ediz Hook, Clallam County.
The company’s explanation met with disbelief from fishermen and environmental groups. “Part of the feed going to these salmon is chicken feed, but this is B.S.,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group that opposes the company’s planned replacement and expansion of its existing operation.
“If they can’t be trusted in an accident like this how can they be trusted to tell the truth in the permitting process?”
The Wild Fish Conservancy, in a statement released Tuesday, noted that on July 27, one of three net pens in the Cypress Island location broke free from an anchor and needed emergency repairs. The statement said the pens should be built to withstand high tidal movements.
Nell Halse, vice president of communications for Cooke, stuck with the company’s statement in an interview later Tuesday. “We did have very high tides and it was coinciding with the eclipse. Tides and currents and tidal surges in the last weeks have been very strong.
“Our people are out there every day and that is what they have been seeing. The tides were extremely high, the current 3.5 knots. People can believe it or not.”
The fish were soon due to be harvested and Cooke had intended to replace equipment at the site to strengthen it, but was awaiting permits, she added.
She dismissed any environmental concern, saying the fish would not survive and that native fish were not at risk. “It’s primarily a business loss. The salmon will be food for the seals and the fishermen can enjoy them.”
Atlantic salmon are a nonnative species to the Pacific Northwest. Between 1951 and 1991, state fishery officials tried to introduce the fish in the region by releasing — on 27 occasions — young smolts into Puget Sound. Those efforts were unsuccessful.
Atlantic salmon also are a mainstay of the global salmon-farming industry, which has expanded in British Columbia and, to a much lesser extent, in Washington state. And in the 1990s, the Pacific Northwest industry repeatedly had large-scale escapes, with some 600,000 Atlantic salmon finding their way out of Washington state net pens between 1996 and 1999, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric technical memorandum.
Salmon farming amid the region’s thriving wild salmon fisheries has been fraught with controversy, with concerns that Atlantic salmon could escape and cause harm to native runs. Alaska went so far as to ban salmon farming in coastal waters.
But Michael Rust, a NOAA researcher who co-authored the technical memorandum, said the risk of farmed Atlantic salmon passing diseases on to wild fish is low. And, over the years, he says, they have not been able to interbreed with Northwest native species or successfully establish themselves in the wild over multiple generations.
They are more likely to be prey than predators, Rust said. “These things are kind of couch potatoes. They are domesticated. Imagine a dairy cow getting lost out in the Serengeti. It doesn’t last very long.”
But plenty of fishers and environmentalists continue to have big concerns about salmon farming.
Lummi fishers were incensed at the Atlantic salmon intruding in home waters of native Washington Pacific salmon. “It’s a devastation,” said Ellie Kinley, whose family has fished Puget Sound for generations. “We don’t want those fish preying on our baby salmon. And we don’t want them getting up in the rivers.”
“I wouldn’t call them healthy. They have weird little deformations on their faces,” said Lucas Kinley, who for the past two days has caught a few of these fish as he set out a seine net for wild Northwest salmon.
G.I. James, a member of the Lummi Natural Resources staff and fish commission, said Pacific salmon face enough trouble as it is without dueling with invaders in their home waters. “It is potentially a disease issue, and impact on our fish, as dire a shape as they are in, right now any impact to them is difficult to absorb.”
Warren, of the WDFW, also is concerned about potential impacts on wild stocks.
The department is urging recreational fishers to get as many of the Atlantic salmon as possible. A valid fishing license is needed, but the fish don’t need to be recorded on fish tickets and there are no bag limits. Buyers may also legally buy the Atlantics from commercial and tribal fishers, Warren said.
“Catch as many as you want,” he said. “We don’t want anything competing with our natural populations. We have never seen a successful crossbreeding with Atlantic salmon, but we don’t want to test the theory.”
He said the fish were placed in the pens in May 2016 and treated for yellow mouth, a bacterial infection, in July 2016. He said the fish that escaped are believed to be healthy and disease-free. “We have no concerns about disease at this point.”
Penalties for the escape are being evaluated, Warren said.