Controversy ensues after Cooke salmon eclipse escape

Published on
August 23, 2017

The escapement of several thousand Atlantic salmon from a Cooke Aquaculture farm off the coast of Washington State is drawing criticism from groups worried about the impact that the farmed salmon might have on the natural environment of Puget Sound. The escapement was caused by the high tide leading up to the solar eclipse on 21 August, according to Cooke.

High tides wrecked a net that was holding 305,000 fish at Cooke’s 30-year-old fish farm near Cypress Island, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is urging fishermen to catch as many of the 10-pound salmon as possible.

While the exact number of escaped fish is not known, the net had around three million pounds of fish in it when it imploded last weekend, said Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for the WDFW, The Seattle Times reported.

“Exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse caused damage to a salmon farm that has been in operation near Cypress Island for approximately 30 years,” Cooke said in a statement provided to SeafoodSource. “It is estimated that several thousand Atlantic salmon escaped following a structural failure of the net pens on the Cypress Site 2 farm. It appears that many fish are still contained within the nets.” 

The company cannot confirm exact numbers of fish losses until harvesting is completed and an inventory of fish in the pens has been conducted, according to Cooke.

Organizations opposing Cooke’s planned expansion of its existing operation – as well as fishermen concerned about the wild salmon population – criticized the salmon escapement.

“Part of the feed going to these salmon is chicken feed but this is B.S.,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of the Puget Sound Keeper, a nonprofit environmental group, according to The Seattle Times. “If they can’t be trusted in an accident like this, how can they be trusted to tell the truth in the permitting process?”

However, Nell Halse, spokesperson for Cooke, confirmed the connection to the eclipse. 

“We did have very high tides and it was coinciding with the eclipse. Tides and currents and tidal surges in the last weeks have been very strong,” The Seattle Times reported. “Our people are out there every day, and that is what they have been seeing. The tides were extremely high, the current 3.5 knots. People can believe it or not. That is the reality.”

In addition to Puget Sound Keeper, local fishermen called the escapement a “devastation.” 

“We don’t want those fish preying on our baby salmon. And we don’t want them getting up in the rivers,” said Ellie Kinley, a Puget Sound fisher.

The WDFW wants recreational fishermen to catch as many of the salmon as possible, and are allowing buyers to purchase the escaped fish from commercial and tribal fishers, Warren said. The fish are believed to be healthy and disease-free, he added.

“Catch as many as you want,” Warren said. “We don’t want anything competing with our natural populations. We have never seen a successful crossbreeding with Atlantic salmon, but we don’t want to test the theory.”

There shouldn’t be concern about how the escapement will affect the environment or native species, because the escaped fish will not survive in the wild, Halse said. 

“It’s primarily business loss,” she said. “The salmon will be food for the seals and the fishermen can enjoy them. The losses are to the company first and foremost.”

Cooke’s crews are on site, working to stabilize the farm and to recover as many fish as possible, as conditions permit, Cooke said in its statement. 

“The health and safety of our employees continues to be our priority, and we will wait for tidal conditions to improve before we send divers into the farm to do a full assessment,” it said.

Cooke had applied for permits to “allow us to strengthen and update the Cypress site even before the existing fish were harvested out,” according to the statement. “We will work with the relevant authorities to make sure we can employ the best knowledge, technology and the expertise of our global experts as we rebuild the farm.” 

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