All Atlantic salmon fish farms in Puget Sound should be closed and future expansion plans scrapped following the Aug. 19 escape of thousands of the non-native fish from a facility on Cypress Island in northern Puget Sound.
Treaty tribes in Western Washington are shouldering most of the cleanup burden after the escape of about 200,000 fish when a section of Cooke Aquaculture’s floating farm structure collapsed.
These were not small fry. They were fully grown fish weighing an average of 8 to 10 pounds and were ready to be harvested for market.
Structural flaws, little state government oversight, lack of coordination and a rapid response plan, along with poor communication by Cooke Aquaculture delayed quick action to contain the fish, allowing them to spread throughout Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington coast and southern British Columbia.
We don’t know what the full impact might be to our natural salmon stocks. We can only hope that this invasive species doesn’t establish a foothold in our region.
Cleaning up these fish increases impacts to returning stocks of hatchery and naturally spawning Pacific salmon such as chinook, pink and coho. Our salmon already face uncertain survival because of ongoing loss and damage to their habitat.
Washington is the only U.S. state on the West Coast that allows Atlantic salmon farms. In British Columbia, dozens of Atlantic salmon farms dot the coastline and are a focus of increasing public protest because of pollution and disease concerns.
Atlantic salmon fish farm net pens should not be confused with Pacific salmon enhancement net pens in which young hatchery fish are held for a short time to acclimate before being released. Neither should they be confused with other pens for rearing native species such as sablefish. These fish are screened regularly for fish diseases and do not endanger our precious Northwest natural stocks.
It wasn’t a question of if but when Atlantic salmon would escape from the four fish farm operations that Cooke operates in Western Washington. We can only hope that these fish aren’t any more successful than those that have previously escaped. Between 1996 and 1999, more than 500,000 got loose in Puget Sound.
Ironically, Cooke was mounting an effort to expand its operations to a site near Port Angeles even as fish were escaping from its Cypress Island facility. We think that proposal – now in the permitting stage – should be thrown out and the rest of the company’s Atlantic salmon farms should be permanently closed. The risks of their continued operation are just too great.
These Atlantic salmon fish farms don’t belong here. We don’t want them in our waters. There is no place for them.
Lorraine Loomis is chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.