Washington State, Alaska respond to Atlantic salmon issue

Cooke Aquaculture had applied for permits to reorient net pens differently for tides and currents

Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

An investigation into the escape of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon from a net pen southeast of Bellingham, Wash., near the San Juan Islands, has prompted a halt on any new leases or permits for marine Atlantic salmon net pens until a full review of the incident is completed.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued that order on Aug. 26, in the wake of the net pen failure on Aug. 19 at the fish farm operated by Cooke Aquaculture, a subsidiary of the Cooke family of companies in Canada that owns Icicle Seafoods.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources said on Aug. 28 that some 119,500 Atlantic salmon had been so far recovered from the collapsed net pen. The facility from which the fish escaped held some 305,000 fish. Cooke has reportedly recovered about 141,600 of the escaped Atlantic salmon and the Lummi Nation, a coastal tribe near Bellingham, said that its fishermen have caught another 20,000 of those fish.

Meanwhile in Juneau, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is asking sport anglers and commercial fishermen to report the harvest of any Atlantic salmon. ADF&G Commissioner Sam Cotten said that so far the agency has not heard of any of these fish entering Alaska waters. If spotted, they would be treated as an invasive species, he said.

Amalia Walton, an attorney for Cooke Aquaculture, said the company’s main focus right now is getting the remaining fish out of the net pens and those net pens out of the water.

As of the evening of Aug. 29, some 141,576 fish had been extracted from the net pens and were being disposed of in various ways, with none for human consumption, she said.


Cooke Aquaculture is conducting its own investigation into the incident, and also negotiating with tribal entities to purchase any harvested Atlantic salmon, she said.

“We are reaching out to the tribes as a matter of respect,” she said. “We are negotiating with each individual tribe as a tribal nation. We are buying only ticketed fish from commercial fishermen.”

Walton said that the net pens were acquired as part of the purchase of Icicle Seafoods and that Cooke Aquaculture had determined after inspection that those nets were not up to Cooke Aquaculture standards. The company had submitted permit applications on Feb. 7 to several federal and state agencies, seeking to reorient that array of net pens differently to tides and currents, but had not yet received the permits, she said.

Photo courtest of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In a statement issued shortly after the incident, Ron Warren, head of WDFW’s fish program, said that his agency’s first concern is to protect native fish species, and that agency would like to see as many of the escaped fish caught as possible, but that if caught they would be safe to eat.  Warren also said that he has seen no record of Atlantic salmon successfully reproducing with Pacific salmon in Washington state.

To help anglers identify Atlantic salmon, WDFW has posted a salmon identification guide on its webpage at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/salmon/atlantic.html

Cooke said initially on Aug. 22 that “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” caused the damage. Escape of the salmon was due to a “structural failure” of a net pen, the company said.

The environmental group Puget Soundkeeper took exception with Cooke’s statement that the high tides and currents coinciding with the solar eclipse caused the damage, saying that the release of the salmon from the net pens occurred at a time when charts show that tides and currents were well within predictions on Aug. 19 and that the solar eclipse took place two days later.

Puget Soundkeeper also said that escaped Atlantic salmon can compete with native fish and transmit disease and parasites. Cooke already had plans to expand a net pen site near Port Angeles and install up to 20 more sites in the Puget Sound area, raising further concern in the fishing industry. A hearing on the Port Angeles proposal was scheduled for Sept. 7.

Atlantic salmon net pens are legal in Washington state, but banned in Alaska, Oregon and California.