Washington is currently the largest producer of farmed salmon in the US, with an annual production of roughly 17 million pounds (7700 tonnes) a year.
Although the precise number of escaped salmon, from a site near Cypress Island in the Puget Sound, is still not known, it is thought that initial estimates of several thousand are likely to be too low. Indeed, the cages in question, which were damaged by unusually strong tides, contained 305,000 salmon and – as of Saturday – only 60,000 had been recovered.
The incident has led to the Washington state departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology along with the Office of the Governor and state Emergency Management Division, forming an Incident Command structure to respond to the escape of Atlantic salmon from net pens on Cypress Island.
“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation,” said State Governor Jay Inslee, “that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon. I have directed the Department of Ecology to put a hold on any new permits for net pens until a thorough investigation of this incident is completed. Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again. I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters.”
The fish average about 10lb and anglers are being urged to catch and kill as many as possible.
Cooke Aquaculture acquired five farms in Washington from Icicle Seafoods last year and had already applied for permission to upgrade the facilities at Cyrpus Island prior to the escape. The escape may not only jeopardise their plans but might also lead to legal action, after Wild Fish Conservancy submitted a letter to Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, LLC providing 60-day notice of intent to file citizen suit under section 505 of the Clean Water Act.
According to the group, the escape of fish and material “represent blatantly negligent violations of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits under which Cooke Aquaculture’s Atlantic salmon net pens currently operate.”
They are also disputing Cooke’s claims that the high tides were solely responsible. “Wild Fish Conservancy,” they state, “is bewildered by the company’s claim that the solar eclipse, an event which showed no recorded impact on tides, presented a tidal occurrence that they could not have prepared for.”
Although escaped Atlantic salmon have not been known to spawn successfully in rivers in the Pacific Northwest, the conservation organisation has also mentioned the possible ecological impact of the escapees.
“The escapement of Atlantic salmon poses threats of competition to native juvenile and adult salmon and steelhead,” said the Conservancy’s fisheries scientist Dr Nick Gayeski. “The escaped fish still need to feed and thus are likely to compete with native juvenile Pacific salmon and steelhead, including preying on them. Like Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon spawn in the fall. The escaped fish are capable of spawning and will begin entering Puget Sound rivers to attempt to spawn. Whether the escaped fish succeed in producing offspring or not, they will compete on the spawning grounds with native salmon, including endangered Puget Sound Chinook, posing a threat to the spawning success of native salmon.”