WDFW asks anglers to harvest escaped Atlantic salmon

Cooke Aquaculture blames high tides, currents coinciding with solar eclipse for net pen failure

A net pen failure at a fish farm southeast of Bellingham, Wash., near the San Juan Islands, has released thousands of Atlantic salmon, prompting Washington state officials to urge anglers to harvest as many as they can.

Cooke Aquaculture notified the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife of a net pen failure on Aug. 19, resulting in release of an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 fish, although the actual number of fish that escaped is still not known.

Ron Warren, head of WDFW’s fish program, issued a statement saying that his agency’s first concern is to protect native fish species, so the agency would like to see as many of the escaped fish caught as possible. Warren also said that to date he has seen no record of Atlantic salmon successfully reproducing with Pacific salmon in Washington state.

“It will be some time before we know how many fish escaped the net pens,” Warren said. “That’s why we’ve authorized Cooke Aquaculture to fish with beach seine nets and we’re encouraging anglers to go out and harvest these fish.” The escaped Atlantics are estimated to be eight to 10 pounds in size and are safe to eat, he said.

The Seattle Times noted in its report on the incident that Lummi harvesters fishing for king salmon found the spotted Atlantic salmon in their nets on Aug. 20 and Aug. 21.

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


Those anglers must have current fishing licenses and also observe gear regulations identified in that state’s 2017-18 sport fishing pamphlet, but they do not have to report Atlantic salmon on their catch record cards.

Cooke said in a statement released 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.

“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 environmental group Puget Soundkeeper took exception with Cooke’s statement that the high tides and currents coinciding with the solar eclipse caused the damage, and issued its own statement, 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.

“Every West Coast state except for Washington has banned Atlantic salmon net pens for their negative impact,” Puget Soundkeeper said in a statement on its website, www.pugetsoundkeeper.org.  “Intensive farming of these non-native fish in Puget Sound waters poses a tremendous risk to native fish stocks, which include endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. Cooke’s statement is misleading, distracting from their failure to secure the pens safely and to adequately prepare for predictable tide events. In fact, over the last month, there were at least 11 days with higher tides than occurred on Aug. 19th. And king tides during the winter are routinely much higher than those reported this month.”

Puget Soundkeeper also said that escaped Atlantic salmon can compete with native fish and transmit disease and parasites. “Farmed salmon are treated with antibiotics and are fed with artificial dyes to make the fish meat more appealing to consumers,” Soundkeeper noted. “These fish do not belong in our waters. The best way to provide sustainable seafood is to restore our once world famous native salmon fisheries.”

Cooke Industry already has 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 is scheduled for Sept. 7

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