Open Season on Salmon After Fish Farm Breach Threatens Wild Populations

If you can catch em, you can keep em.

On August 19, a net failure at a fish farm near Washington’s San Juan Islands released thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon into the Pacific Northwest’s waterways. The solution? Fish to your hearts desire: the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife declared there are no caps on quantity or size of Atlantic salmon caught in waterways where fishing for Pacific salmon or trout is already allowed. They actively encourage fishermen to catch as many of these fish as possible, though caps on Pacific salmon and other fish have not changed—and once fishermen meet those caps, they’re expected to call it a day on Atlantic salmon as well.

The fish farm, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, claims that high tidal fluctuations due to the eclipse were responsible for the failure of the net hemming in 305,000 salmon near Cypress Island, along Rosario Strait between Guemes and Blakely islands. The company had issues with structural integrity in July, but a spokesperson declared the problems were resolved prior to the breach. However, scientists debunked the claim that the eclipse was to blame; tides had been no higher during the breach than they had been for the past several weeks. The Wild Fish Conservancy, which has been advocating against the company expanding their farming operations, blames the breach on inadequate equipment and poor maintenance.

The Lummi nation, a native tribe that has always relied on salmon fishing for subsistence and commerce, declared a state of emergency after the net failure. Atlantic salmon are considered invasive to the area, and local salmon populations, like the endangered Chinook salmon, are struggling. Escaped farmed salmon pose a host of risks to native fish populations: inbreeding (of which there is no precedent across these different salmon species) and the transfer of parasites and disease. Farmed salmon are particularly susceptible to illness because of their close and unsanitary quarters—they literally swim around in each other’s feces for the duration of their lives—and they are often heavily dosed with antibiotics to stay healthy. The overuse of antibiotics in salmon can create antibiotic resistant bugs (and has adverse impacts on the humans who eat the antibiotic-laden fish as well). Cooke Aquaculture claims the fish in the compromised pen hadn’t been fed antibiotics for over a year, that the fish are healthy and should pose no risk to the native fish populations.

Fishermen in the area told the Seattle Times that they were catching so many Atlantic salmon—netting them by the hundreds—that they were resorting to giving them away. The fish are safe to eat, and the company and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife maintain they pose no threat to the environment, but the state Department of Ecology consider them a pollutant and the company could face penalties for the breach. The Lummi nation launched a cleanup organization earlier this week, mopping up fish as if they were an oil spill.

You still need a standard Washington State fishing permit, but otherwise, it’s open season on Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Photo by Harald Dischinger.

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  • Chris

    I can’t remember the name, but there’s a free doco online about the dangers of salmon farming in the region. Following watching that, I only buy wild salmon (and as it costs more, I just buy less).

    Not only can you have net failure, but the farmed ones get disease and as they’re isolated from preditors, the sick are not removed from the population.

    Scary stuff messing with Mother Nature.

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