Accident renews debate over salmon farming

Hundreds of thousands of salmon escaped into the Pacific Ocean after an accident at a salmon farm off the coast of Washington State. Local fishermen are worried that the farmed fish might prey on the wild salmon or infect them with diseases. John Dyer reports from Boston.

300,000 farmed Atlantic salmon escaped into the waters of the Pacific Ocean, putting the local wild salmon at risk of disease. (Image credit: Ingrid Taylar via Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Fisherman have to catch fish. That’s a given. But the fiasco unfolding along the northwestern Pacific coast of the U.S. is something different altogether, with fisherman scrambling to collect more than 300,000 salmon that escaped from a fish farm nearly 1.5 weeks ago.

“I had no idea there would be that many,” said Nik Mardesich, a commercial fisherman who usually catches native salmon in Puget Sound.

Farm fishing under fire

The August 19 incident has shined a light on fish farming, which is widespread through the area. Washington State has the biggest American farm fishing industry, producing more than 7.7 million kilograms of Atlantic salmon annually, according to state statistics.

But critics have long warned that a disaster was imminent. Alaska has banned commercial fish farming to protect its stocks to prevent schools of farmed fish from interacting with their wild cousins.

“These fish are headed to every river in Puget Sound,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Native American community that fishes in the region.

“We have been saying all along it was not a question of if, but when, this would happen. The wild salmon stocks are already endangered. It is time to shut these operations down. Period.”

Farmed fish compete for food

The director of the Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest, Kurt Beardslee, called the escape an “environmental nightmare”, saying the farmed fish might spread diseases and compete for food with wild fish. Native Chinook and steelhead salmon are currently listed as threatened species, a designation that is two steps away from extinction.

“Atlantic salmon net pens amplify viruses and expose Pacific salmon to deadly diseases and pathogens, put these wild salmon at risk through escapes, and likely directly prey on migrating juvenile salmon,” said the Conservancy on its website.

But the director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle, Jill Rolland, said the fish are not likely to spread diseases. “We have a very strong regulatory environment to ensure that these fish are under veterinary care,” she said.

Farm operator blames solar eclipse

Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, the company that runs the farm, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife initially blamed excessive high tides from the solar eclipse on the accident, saying an anchor pulled loose and twisted the walkways that hold the nets in the water.

But environmentalists questioned that explanation, noting that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded that tides around the islands were almost 8 centimetres below forecasts on the day the nets broke.

Gunnell and others also noted that Cooke initially said only thousands of fish escape. A day after the initial break, the company announced that nearly all the fish – a total weight of 1.3 million kilograms – were now running free.

“It is a very difficult situation,” said Nell Halse, a spokesman for Cooke, which owns a handful of fish farms in the region. “These guys are farmers and they have invested a year and a half in taking care of these animals, and now they have lost them — and seeing the devastation of the farm, it is a hard thing.”

Calls for more safety measures

The state considers the fish pollutants and could fine the company accordingly, said reports.

Beardslee, whose organization opposes fish farming, said the state at least needed to force companies to spend more on safety measures.

“It’s an engineering issue,” Beardslee said. “They have this great benefit of using this water, this resource, and they have the obligation to engineer things so these failures won’t happen.”

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