“Devastating” salmon escape at Cooke Aquaculture feedlot salmon farm in Puget Sound, Washington

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Lummi fishers out for chinook were shocked to find Atlantic salmon in their nets Sunday and Monday after an escape of an unknown number of Atlantic salmon from a Cooke Aquaculture net pen operation off Cypress Island. A pen holding more than 300,000 salmon imploded Saturday.  (Courtesy Ellie Kinley)
From the Seattle Times:

It’s open season on Atlantic salmon as the public is urged to help mop up a salmon spill from an imploded net pen holding 305,000 fish at a Cooke Aquaculture fish farm near Cypress Island, near Seattle, Washington.

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 on Monday.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 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 yet 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.

Cooke, in an estimate to WDFW, put the number of escaped fish at 4,000 to 5,000, according to Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for the WDFW.

In recent years, the $1billion New Brunswick-based multinational aquaculture firm has been plagued with salmon escapes and a variety of virulent disease outbreaks affecting millions of farmed salmon from their industrial-strength “feedlot” salmon pens, often placed in shallow bays and harbours surrounding rural coastal communities in canada and elsewhere.

The department has been monitoring the situation and crafting a spill-response plan with Cooke, Warren said.

In a statement Tuesday morning, Cooke said “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” caused the damage. Cooke estimates several thousand salmon escaped following “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.”

The spill comes 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.

By Saturday afternoon, anchor lines to the pens broke, 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.

The company’s explanation met with widespread disbelief.

“Part of the feed going to these salmon is chicken feed but this is B.S.,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of the Puget Sound Keeper, 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?”

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. That is the reality.”

She said the farm experiences high tides in July, as well.

The fish were soon due to be harvested and Cooke had intended to replace equipment at the site 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 business loss. The salmon will be food for the seals and the fishermen can enjoy them.

“The losses are to the company first and foremost.”

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.”

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.”

The WDFW agreed with that concern. 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.