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Thousands of Farmed Fish Die in Port Angeles

by Matt Schubert
Peninsula Daily News, July 16, 2006

PORT ANGELES -- Deadly "brown tide" swept through local waters last week, killing about 100,000 Atlantic salmon in the fish farm in Port Angeles Harbor before dispersing.

The loss in Port Angeles and at a second fish farm was estimated in the millions of dollars by American Gold Seafoods General Manager John Bielka,

Despite the severity of the outbreak, Bielka said "it could have been a lot worse."

With the brown tide -- caused by a single-celled, brown-colored organism called Heterosigma -- gone due to cooler temperatures and winds, operations are now nearly back to normal, Bielka said.

Bielka said food for the Atlantic salmon in Port Angeles was cut off as soon as the bloom was detected -- a tactic that helps save the fish -- and "upweller" equipment was used to bring up deep, cold waters which dissipate the organisms.

Fish farm workers monitored the situation on an hourly basis, at times diving into the water to collect dead fish, which were weighing down the floating net pens.

"Guys were working 18 hours a day trying to keep everything floating and going," Bielka said. 1 million pounds

Seattle-based American Seafoods lost Atlantic salmon at both its Port Angeles and Cypress Island farms, two of the eight salmon farms owned by the company in Washington, according to Bielka.

He estimated that approximately one third of the fish in Port Angeles and a quarter of the population at Cypress Island, near Anacortes, were killed.

That amounts to about one million pounds, according to Tony Hinderman of Smoki Foods Inc. in Seattle, which hauled away the dead fish for use in dry cat food.

Bielka said the losses were in "the millions of dollars."

"We're going to have to re-inventory everything," he said.

Pacific Agriculture Caucus chairman Peter Becker estimated that the Port Angeles farm lost around $2 million alone.

"This has been the worst [outbreak] since I've been here," Port Angeles site manager Randy Hodgin said, having worked at the facility off inner Ediz Hook for 20 years.

"We just do what we can do and hope for the best."

Vulnerable fish

Researchers believe Heterosigma kills fish by lodging in their gills and suffocating them.

Farmed fish are particularly vulnerable because the fish are kept in floating saltwater pens.

When the blooms enter the pens, the fish cannot escape. As a result, large numbers are killed.

Scientists said wild salmon are also threatened by the organism because other fish swim deeper to avoid the plankton that stays close to the surface.

Yet because so many of the dead free-swimming fish either sink to the ocean floor, or are eaten by other animals, scientists are unable to estimate how many fish are killed by the Heterosigma.

David Freed, a member of Beach Watchers, said there were no reports of large numbers of dead fish washing ashore on the North Olympic Peninsula.

Natural and not caused by pollution, Heterosigma blooms a few times each decade, usually in summer months when water conditions are just right.

Unlike "red tide" algae blooms, which are capable of releasing toxins that can also be harmful to humans who consume shellfish and other foods culled from the sea, Heterosigma doesn't affect human health.

June's warm temperatures and sunny conditions, combined with a large glacial runoff from British Columbia's Fraser River, allowed the organism to multiply and spread from Canada's Strait of Georgia into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the San Juan Islands to Anacortes.

The brown tide bloom caused long, rust-colored streaks on the surface of the Strait.

This year's Heterosigma outbreak, which spread after first appearing June 28 off Anacortes, was the first major event since 1997, but not nearly as bad as an occurrence in 1991, when a fish farm off Anacortes reported 90 percent of its fish killed.

Matt Schubert
Thousands of Farmed Fish Die in Port Angeles
Peninsula Daily News, July 16, 2006

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