Cooke Aquaculture dealing with local outrage after farmed salmon escape in Washington

Cooke Aquaculture has come under fire by critics of its handling of the escape of thousands of Atlantic salmon from its farm off the coast of Washington State last week. 

Originally, Cooke said that high tides leading up to the eclipse caused the collapse of a pen holding as many as 305,000 farmed Atlantic salmon, but scientists have said they don’t believe high tides were the cause of the pen’s failure. 

“The data speak for themselves: there were large tidal ranges around the day of the eclipse, but not out of the ordinary, and in fact, they were smaller than during some recent months,” Parker MacCready, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, told The Seattle Times.

“They can’t blame this on the tide,” Jonathan White, a tidal expert, told science magazine Inverse

Chuck Brown, communications manager for Cooke, maintained the company’s position in an interview with SeafoodSource on 25 August.

“Our people – some who have worked on the water for decades – tell us the conditions were exceptional last weekend over the course of several tides and, while this system was due to be replaced – applications to replace the gear were submitted – there was no indication an event like this could have occurred,” Brown said. “Our modern cage and mooring systems are designed to withstand much harsher conditions and our company will continue to upgrade our facilities to ensure this never happens again.”

Cooke has also been criticized for underestimating the number of fish that escaped. The Lummi Nation tribe said the state reported that more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon have escaped, much higher than the 4,000 or so initially estimated by Cooke in its initial report to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

In his interview with SeafoodSource, Brown said the company was still unsure of the exact total of escaped salmon.

“We don’t yet have a firm number of fish remaining in the nets – we know the escape numbers in the thousands and that hundreds have been caught,” Brown said. 

Lummi tribe members are further concerned about the impact farmed fish may have on local wild salmon populations. However, Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said there is no evidence that the escaped farmed fish pose a threat to native fish populations, “either through disease or crossbreeding with Pacific salmon”, according to The Seattle Times.

“To date, there is no record of Atlantic salmon successfully reproducing with Pacific salmon in Washington's waters," Warren said.

Still, the Lummi Nation has declared a state of emergency and is paying fish buyers to take the Atlantic salmon brought in by their fishermen, The Seattle Times reported.

“The wild salmon stocks are already endangered. It is time to shut these operations down. Period,” Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, told The Seattle Times. “These fish are headed to every river in Puget Sound. We have been saying all along it was not a question of if, but when, this would happen.”

On Friday, 25 August, the Wild Fish Conservancy announced it will sue Cooke for violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The group claimed the release threatens struggling wild fish populations and the local ecosystem, in violation of federal pollution laws.

Brown said that Cooke realizes the seriousness of the farmed salmon release. 

“We completely understand the concerns surrounding what happened,” he said. “We are working with our state regulatory and tribal partners to contain any further fish from escaping and to recover the fish that have escaped and limit the impact of this incident on native salmon stock.”   

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is urging fishermen to catch as many of the 10-pound salmon as possible. On 24 August, there were an estimated 100 recreational fishing vessels trying to snag the farmed salmon along Deepwater Bay, according to Halse.

A group of Cooke employees removed 136 escaped fish as part of “beach seining” along the shorelines, according to Cooke spokeswoman Nell Halse.

“We are working on recapture of wild fish, recovery of salmon still on site and stabilizing the farm,” she said.

In her own statement to the The Seattle Times, Halse backed off the company’s prior claim that the collapse of the pen was primarily caused by high tides due to the eclipse, and said the company was still investigating the causes of the release.

“There obviously is not one reason why this happened; it was not just the tides,” Halse said.  We will be doing a full assessment as to what really caused it, and most importantly, what we can do to make sure it never happens again.” 


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