Washington state officials have created an incident command center to coordinate containment and recovery of thousands of Atlantic salmon that escaped from net pens in the San Juans a week ago.
A week after the escape of thousands of Atlantic salmon into the waters off the San Juan Islands, the state Saturday formed a multiagency response team to oversee and coordinate containment and recovery.
“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release.
Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz also said the state will not issue new leases or permits for net pens until a full review of the incident is completed.
The company that runs the Cypress Island fish-farm operation, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, also said Saturday it would not rebuild the collapsed pens, but would concentrate on recovering the salmon still remaining in the netted enclosures.
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A fish-recovery vessel was pumping surviving Atlantic salmon from the pens into the vessel’s hold, said Chuck Brown, a spokesman for Cooke. A crane barge also was scheduled to lift containment nets to the surface to aid in fish removal, he said.
The company has said there were 305,000 fish in the pens that collapsed, but has not issued a firm count of the escaped fish.
On Saturday, Cooke employees recovered 62,100 fish from the net-pen cages, according to the company, in addition to the 5,166 fish recovered from the pens earlier in the week.
Three state agencies, the departments of Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife and Ecology, will pool resources to expedite the containment and recovery of the farmed, nonnative fish, said Cori Simmons, spokeswoman for Natural Resources, from the Anacortes command center.
She said technical and scientific experts from the agencies are now on Cypress Island to work with Cooke and Native American tribes.
The salmon escapes occurred as Cooke Aquaculture is proposing a new net-pen operation in the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Port Angeles, east of the Ediz Hook, Clallam County.
Tribal members have been critical of the state’s response this week, saying they heard about the spill from their fishermen, not state fisheries officials. The net pens off Cypress Island began collapsing last Saturday, but neither fisheries nor Cooke made a public statement until Tuesday afternoon.
The Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency and is paying fish buyers to take the Atlantic salmon brought in by their fishermen, said Merle Jefferson, director of natural resources for the tribe. With wild salmon runs already depressed, tribe officials say they worry that native fish now will have to compete with Atlantic salmon for food and could be exposed to disease.
But scientists differ about the threat posed by Atlantic salmon, which are not native to the Pacific Northwest. Several large escapes occurred in the late 1990s. The state issued a report after those spills and concluded there was no evidence that Atlantic salmon could interbreed with Pacific salmon and no known self-sustaining populations of Atlantic salmon in Washington.
Lummi fisherman Dana Wilson said his boat unloaded 15,000 to 18,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon at 3 a.m. Saturday and was back on the water in the afternoon. He said hundreds of the escaped fish are still in the Deepwater Bay area where the net pens were located.
“They’ve been hand fed and some aren’t going very far,” he said. He and other tribal fishermen have dropped their commercial wild-salmon fishing to help net the escaped fish, “before they spread all over Puget Sound. I don’t know if it’s too late or not,” Wilson said.
Inslee called on Cooke Aquaculture to compensate those working to capture the Atlantic salmon from state waters.
The Department of Ecology is currently reviewing the state’s management guidelines for commercial net-pen operations of Atlantic salmon in saltwater. That review isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2019 and won’t change existing policies, according to a department website on the project. That would be up to the individual permitting agencies, the website says.
State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, whose district includes the San Juans, said Saturday that he has asked, in the wake of the escape, whether the review of the fish- farm regulations could be speeded up. He said he was told it could not.
Ranker called the collapse of the Cypress Island pens “unacceptable.” But while Cooke submitted applications to upgrade the facility several months ago, Ranker said he didn’t think the state could have acted sooner to prevent the collapse.
“I don’t think anyone in government or the tribes knew we were on the brink of a catastrophic failure,” he said.
He said the state investigation of the collapse should ask if existing requirements for net-pen operations were adequate and if they were being followed.
“I think we should use this crisis to evaluate our current policy and whether net pens for invasive species should be allowed,” said Ranker, who served as an adviser to President Barack Obama’s National Ocean Council in 2016.