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Questions Remain after Farmed
Salmon Escape into Sound

by Jacqueline Allison
Go Anacortes, August 30, 2017

A review of studies of fish introductions in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand
found that more than three out of four introductions led to a decline in native fish populations.

These five escaped Atlantic salmon from a Cooke Aquaculture net pen were brought aboard the Salish Sea, a Lummi tribal seiner fishing for wild salmon, on Aug. 21. (Lucas Kinley photo) Up to 180,000 Atlantic farmed salmon may have escaped from the failed Cypress Island net pen, which officials fear puts native, endangered Pacific salmon at risk and has already led to at least one promise of a lawsuit.

The Department of Ecology considers the Aug. 19 escape a toxic spill.

Meanwhile, fishermen are catching the farmed salmon in hoards in an effort to remove them from Puget Sound. Many have been caught near the fish farm, but there are reports of the farmed fish being caught in the Seattle area and both east and west of Vancouver Island.

Net pen owner Cooke Aquaculture has said the pen contained 305,000 fish when it collapsed.

The Canadian company continues to secure the damaged structure and recover salmon left inside, said spokesman Chuck Brown. As of Monday night, the company had captured 121,766 salmon, according to a company update provided to the Department of Natural Resources.

Lummi Nation fishermen caught an estimated 200,000 pounds of the farmed salmon, or about 20,000 fish, since the tribe issued a state of emergency Thursday, according to a Lummi press release.

"Our fishermen are doing all they can to address the issue, but to ensure our native fish stocks are protected, the state and other parties involved need to ramp up their efforts," Lummi Chairman Timothy Ballew II said in the release.

State agencies are working with the company and area tribes to figure out a recovery plan.

A plan should have already been in place, just like for an oil spill or forest fire, Samish Indian Nation Tribal Chairman Tom Wooten said.

He worries that farmed salmon will feed on both young native salmon and forage fish that sustain adult salmon. The tribe has focused on restoring forage fish habitat at Secret Harbor, which is right next to the fish farm.

Pacific salmon including Chinook, chum, coho and sockeye salmon are threatened or endangered in parts of the state, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Long-term river monitoring will be critical," Wooten said.

Groups reached out to Gov. Jay Inslee's office last week for how to handle "this catastrophic failure of net pens," he said.

On Saturday, Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz directed the state to put a ban on permits for salmon farms until the net pen failure is reviewed.

Cooke wants to install a new Atlantic salmon farm in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and needs state, federal and county permits.

The Samish have opposed net pen expansion in the past.

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Brian Cladoosby called the fish spill a crisis in a statement last week.

"It takes a disaster to create a solution," said Debra Lekanof, Swinomish intergovernmental affairs liaison.

A meeting was set for Monday at Swinomish to discuss further plans. Calls to the Swinomish tribe for additional comment were not immediately returned this week.

Washington is the only West Coast state with open-net salmon farms. They were banned by Alaska and California, and Oregon has none.

Ecology is currently conducting a two-year review of state policy guidance for net-pen aquaculture in Washington. The recommendations are 20 years old and "need replacement due to changes in operations and our scientific understanding," according to Ecology's website.

On Tuesday, Cooke crews were set to retrieve more fish and begin deconstruction of the broken pen.

Cooke Aquaculture operates in nine countries, according to the company website. It owns eight salmon farms in the Puget Sound, with three separate farms near Cypress Island. They have the only such facilities in the state.

The Department of Natural Resources leases state-owned waters to Cooke and has the power to put the company in default, said Joe Smilie, Natural Resources spokesman.

The immediate priority is to inspect the other two pens after securing the broken one, Smilie said.

The agency hopes to complete inspections by the end of September, he said.

The three Cypress Island net pens were initially permitted and installed between 1983 and 1986, and Cooke acquired them in 2016, according to Natural Resources.

The last inspection of the broken pen occurred in September 2016, and the agency found it to be in good working order, though aged, Smilie said.

At the time, Cooke was proposing equipment replacement, he said.

The pen's main structure was installed in 2000 and the netting 18 months ago, Cooke spokesman Brown said.

The company wanted to upgrade the facility but was unable to get permits in time, he said.

The salmon were close to being harvested, weighing around 10 pounds, when the pen collapsed, he said.

Brown said the company had no indication the pen failure would happen and that crews inspect the facility "365 days a year."

On July 27, the farm underwent emergency work after crews noticed the pen moving due to high tides and strong currents, the company said at the time.

Cooke crews were able to secure the nets by adding additional anchors and cables, and the company reported that no fish escaped.

The farm initially stated that "exceptionally high tides and currents" caused by the solar eclipse contributed to the structural failure on Aug. 19, but it later removed the eclipse explanation from its statement.

The company is still figuring out what caused the failure, Brown said.

Meanwhile, the Wild Fish Conservancy has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue Cooke for violating the Clean Water Act.

"These are our waters," said Kurt Beardslee, the conservancy president.

He also thought the burden shouldn't fall on the public to clean up the spill of a private company, he said.

Fish and Wildlife is encouraging anglers to catch Atlantic salmon and report their catch online.

Related Pages:
Why Are Atlantic Salmon Being Farmed in the Northwest? by Courtney Flatt, Northwest Public Radio, 8/29/17
Ban Atlantic Salmon Farming in Washington Waters by David R. Montgomery, Seattle Times, 8/29/17
'Environmental Nightmare' After Thousands of Atlantic Salmon Escape Fish Farm by Courtney Flatt, Northwest Public Radio, 8/24/17

Jacqueline Allison
Questions Remain after Farmed Salmon Escape into Sound
Go Anacortes, August 30, 2017

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