When a net-pen enclosure holding more than 300,000 farmed Atlantic salmon, owned by Canadian company Cooke Aquaculture, broke open in August, approximately 160,000 fish escaped into Washington’s Puget Sound. Atlantics are classified by the state as an aquatic invasive species and a “pollutant.”
Mass escapes of commercially farmed, non-native Atlantic salmon that might swamp spawning runs of struggling Pacific salmon—or worse, establish permanent, reproducing populations—have been the nightmare scenario of wild fish advocates since the Atlantic-salmon farming industry came to the coasts of Washington and B.C. in the 1970s and ’80s.
Members of the indigenous Lummi Nation frantically moved to catch as many runaways as possible, managing to pull about 20,000 fish from waters around the San Juan Islands, while Cooke Aquaculture removed nearly 120,000 salmon that were still in the compromised net. State officials soon set up an Incident Command to deal with the mess, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) asked recreational fishermen to help catch as many strays as possible. By early September, these anglers had caught 1,760 Atlantics, from Puget Sound to the mouth of the Columbia River.
Cooke Aquaculture immediately issued a statement blaming the net failure on high tides and heavy currents related to the solar eclipse. That explanation was met with heavy skepticism, considering the tides those days weren’t that unusual—not even the highest of the month. State investigators are now examining the net pen involved in the incident to determine the real cause.
“We determined that this was a large-scale incident that would require a major investigation,” says Cori Simmons, Director of Communications for WDFW.
This is not the first time farmed Atlantic salmon escaped from net pens off the Washington coast. Three different incidents between 1996 and 1999 released more than half a million of the non-native fish into Puget Sound.
Wild salmon conservation organizations, including the Wild Fish Conservancy in Washington State, and Raincoast Research and Watershed Watch Salmon Society in British Columbia, have been fighting the growth of Atlantic salmon farming in Pacific waters, mostly unsuccessfully, for years. Currently, Atlantic salmon farms in Washington produce more than 10-million pounds of fish annually, while the B.C. salmon-farming industry accounts for about 100-million pounds each year.
There are lots of reasons for wild Pacific salmon advocates to be concerned about the proliferation. In addition to fears of mass escape, critics point to water pollution caused by feces and other associated waste products. Plus, farmed salmon are fed large quantities of ecologically valuable and rapidly diminishing forage fish (on average, two pounds of forage fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon). And the advertised economic benefit to coastal communities typically falls short.
Large numbers of salmon concentrated in net pens are also vulnerable to disease, such as the Infectious Hematopoietic Necrosis Virus (IHNV) outbreak that occurred near Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 2012. And probably the most insidious threat farmed Atlantic salmon pose for Pacific salmon is sea lice, a tiny marine parasite.
While sea lice don’t have much of an adverse effect on adult salmon, a study by Raincoast Research has shown that just a few sea lice can kill a single juvenile. The problems arise when young salmon migrate from their natal rivers into the ocean and swim through or near net pens filled with farmed Atlantics, and are then exposed to lice infections. One study found that a dozen farms off the B.C. coast, where about 85 farms currently operate, produced more than a billion sea-lice eggs just before the outmigration of wild pink salmon juveniles.
The August salmon jailbreak has again highlighted dangers that farmed Atlantics pose to native Pacific salmon. And lawsuits are brewing. The Duvall, Washington-based Wild Fish Conservancy plans to sue Cooke Aquaculture because Atlantic salmon are legally considered a pollutant, making their escape akin to an unauthorized contaminant spill.
Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee feels that the Native and recreational anglers catching the escaped salmon are cleaning up Cooke Aquaculture’s mess at their own expense. “The sewer-like net-pen industry uses public waters to raise its fish,” Beardsley says, “without compensating the public.”