On Saturday, August 19, 2017, an open net-pen fish farm that contained over 300,000 non-native Atlantic salmon collapsed and released more than 260,000 fish into the Salish Sea. Located along the coast of Cypress Island in the San Juan Islands, the farm is owned by Cooke Aquaculture, which is headquartered in New Brunswick, Canada. Three days after the pen failure, Cooke representatives notified Washington state officials and the public. The departments of Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, and Natural Resources launched a joint investigation.
This event has reverberated throughout the Northwest, both for the ecological risks that non-native species pose to wild native salmon populations, as well as the potential social and economic impacts for surrounding communities, particularly Coast Salish tribes, for whom salmon is at the heart of ceremony and fishing is a way of life. As expected, the tribal response to hundreds of thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon in Northwest waters has been intense. At Ecotrust, we’ve been following this story closely.
Initially, Cooke officials stated 4,000 to 5,000 fish escaped and the release was the result of “exceptionally high tides” created during the August 21st solar eclipse. It wasn’t true. Later, Cooke reported 160,000 Atlantic salmon were released, but that figure was low-balled as well. In all, as many as 263,000 of non-native Atlantic salmon escaped and, of that amount, more than 100,000 are still unaccounted for.
When the breach occurred, tribes in the Puget Sound responded immediately. One tribe, the Lummi Nation, declared a state of emergency and mobilized their fishing fleet in an attempt to mitigate the impact. One hundred and fifty Lummi fishermen responded to the call, which required the tribe to restructure their government to allow tribal members time to act. The total cost for their efforts was $800,000, which the tribe absorbed. Other tribes responded, as did area fishermen and environmental groups.
On January 18, 2018, tribes in the Puget Sound area went a step further when 21 tribal chair men and women signed a letter that was sent to every Washington state legislator asking lawmakers to shut down Atlantic salmon net-pen farming in the Puget Sound as soon as possible to protect native fish. Their letter read, in part: “A healthy and productive Salish Sea is essential to our way of life and to our survival. We have harvested Pacific salmon (native salmon) since time immemorial and we have an inherent right, secured by Treaty with the United States, to continue to pursue our way of life of gathering, hunting and harvesting natural resources. Along with this right comes a sacred obligation to protect our native salmon.”
Even the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, an alliance of 57 tribes in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, southeast Alaska, northern California, and western Montana, called on Northwest coastal states and U.S. federal authorities to ban non-native, saltwater finfish aquaculture in Pacific Northwest waters.
Nearly two weeks later Cooke Aquaculture was fined $332,000 for water-quality violations before and during the collapse and cited for negligence, stating that Cooke had failed to clean and maintain the nets properly which led to a heavy build-up of mussels, seaweed, and other marine life. All that was needed was a strong lateral current to crush the pen, which is exactly what happened. Cooke’s failure to follow maintenance and repair protocols, along with its intentional misleading of state officials and the public, were also cited.
“Our investigative team doggedly pursued the truth,” said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology. “Cooke Aquaculture was negligent, and Cooke’s negligence led to the net-pen failure. What’s even worse was Cooke knew they had a problem and did not deal with the issue. They could have and should have prevented this.” Cooke disputed the findings.
Then on February 4, Washington state terminated Cooke Aquaculture’s lease to operate the remaining two pens at its Cypress Island site, and is working closely with the company to close the facility permanently. This latest termination follows on the heels of a December 2017 shutdown of Cooke’s Port Angeles site, which was cited for being situated outside the boundaries of the lease and for pollution. The company still operates four of its original nine sites in Washington.
Six months after the release, the impacts on wild native salmon are still not known. Long-term monitoring will be needed to determine if the non-native fish are spreading diseases, preying on juvenile wild salmon, reproducing with native fish, or competing for food and habitat. In the meantime, fishermen — both tribal and non-tribal — continue to catch Atlantic salmon throughout the Salish Sea and in rivers around the Puget Sound.