Last week’s escape of as many as 185,000 penned Atlantic salmon into the waters of Puget Sound could have been handled better.
The Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, which owns the mangled fish pen near Cypress Island, was not forthright about the cause or size of the Aug. 19 spill.
Company spokesmen initially estimated closer to 5,000 fish escaped, and the firm was too quick to blame the pen breakage on high tides related to the solar eclipse.
The real cause, however, remains under investigation by experts from three state natural resources agencies that formed a command center near Anacortes. Cooke and its insurers also are reportedly investigating.
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Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a halt to new fish-pen permits issued by the Washington state Department of Ecology “until a thorough investigation of this incident is completed.”
The moratorium on permits and new marine leases for fish pens is a prudent call — at least until state experts get a good handle on what happened and how this kind of release can be prevented. Washington is one of the nation’s top producers of net-pen-raised fin fish.
Cooke Aquaculture operates eight net-pen facilities in state waters, and it has a proposal to relocate and expand one operation in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to Ecology spokeswoman Jessie Payne. Cooke also has an upland fish farm near Rochester.
Some of Cooke’s escaped fish were found as far south as Hood Canal, and Canadian fisheries were monitoring their waters to the north for impacts. Atlantic salmon are non-native fish and may compete with native runs that are already under stress for survival.
Tribal representatives have expressed worry that the Atlantic species will eat up smaller food fish needed by native salmon, or even eat juvenile salmon in the Sound.
By Monday, the Lummi tribe near Bellingham reported capturing some 200,000 pounds of renegade fish. That amounts to about 20,000 individual Atlantic salmon averaging 10 pounds.
State Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Cori Simmons said 120,000 fish also were recovered in the pens but that up to 185,000 might have gotten loose.
Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish tribe, called for a closure of the salmon-pen industry in Puget Sound. Investigators should help determine whether closures or other regulatory steps are needed to ensure safer operation of net-pen operations.
Though there is some dispute about the extent of impact that nonnative fish have on native salmon, it is foolish to take big risks with native fish that our state and federal governments are spending millions to save from extinction.
Given the wider concerns about intruder species in our marine environments, most of the burden for proving the safety of Atlantic salmon farming must fall on industry.