Thousands of salmon escaped a Washington state fish farm near the border on Saturday and could be on their way to B.C. waters.
Cooke Aquaculture has confirmed that several thousand of 10-pound Atlantic salmon were accidentally released into the waters between Anacortes and the San Juan Islands after some kind of structural failure of the net pens at its Cypress Island farm.
Exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse are to blame, the company said in a statement.
Ron Warren, assistant director of the fish program for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, said they believe about 4,000 to 5,000 of the 305,000 fish in the Cooke Aquaculture net pen escaped.
The fish are safe to eat and were last medicated with antibiotics in 2016, he added.
“What we have for records is a treatment from July 2016 and that the fish have all been healthy since that time,” Warren said. “Fortunately, from a health standard perspective, the fish are of size and are fine, unfortunately they’re now swimming free in state waters and maybe in B.C. waters as well.”
In the fallout, the Department of Fish and Wildlife issued an open call to recreational fishers to catch as many of the escaped Atlantic salmon as possible.
However, it’s not welcome news to anglers.
The accident has tribal fisherman from Lummi Island, a traditional First Nations area on the U.S. side of the border, crying foul.
“This is a travesty,” said Keith Carpenter, president of Lummi Island Wild, a local fishing company.
Carpenter said tribal fisherman Lucas Kinley caught 15 of the Atlantics about eight kilometres from Lummi.
“Some are deformed, they are so diseased their mouths are deformed, it’s not good for us. This is a huge deal, it’s no small event. These are exotics, they don’t belong here.”
John Volpe, associate professor with UVic’s School Of Environmental Studies, was “utterly unsurprised” to hear about the escape.
Volpe, who completed his PhD studying Atlantic salmon which are breeding wild in B.C. waters, said it’s yet another reason why B.C. and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans need to study the very topic of Atlantic salmon escaping West Coast fish farms.
What Volpe finds concerning is that a catastrophic event such as this makes the news in Washington state, where there are but a handful of farms compared to B.C.’s thriving arm of the industry.
Despite the grand number of fish that escaped in this one incident, it’s more concerning the number of fish that escape through chronic leakage.
Volpe added that it’s highly likely that at least some of the recently escaped fish will enter B.C.’s portion of the Salish Sea, if not many of them.
“I would say it’s highly likely some of the fish have made it over here though we have limited study on their escaped behaviour, but there’s no information whatsoever,” Volpe said.
He would like to see an in-depth study of Atlantic salmon done along the West Coast.
“For years we’ve tried to secure research funding to ask this question.”
In Canada, escapes from licensed fish farms are to be reported within 24 hours.
Warren said Washington has had a history of fish farm escapes going back to the ‘90s but are less frequent. Cooke Aquaculture operates in Canada as well as Washington and Maine.