It’s open season on Atlantic salmon as the public is urged to help mop up a salmon spill from an imploded net holding 305,000 fish at a Cooke Aquaculture fish farm near Cypress Island.
Lummi fishers out for chinook Sunday near Samish, south of Bellingham Bay, were shocked to pull up the spotted, silvery sided Atlantic salmon — escapees that turned up in their nets again Monday.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is urging the public to catch as many of the fish as possible, with no limit on size or number. The fish are about 10 pounds each. No one knows yet how many escaped. But the net had some 3 million pounds of fish in it when it imploded about 4 p.m. Saturday, said Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for the WDFW.
The department has been monitoring the event and crafting a spill-response plan with Cooke, Warren said.
In a statement Tuesday morning, Cooke said “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” caused the damage. Cooke estimates several thousand salmon escaped following “structural failure” of a net pen.
“It appears that many fish are still contained within the nets,” Cooke said in the statement. “It will not be possible to confirm exact numbers of fish losses until harvesting is completed and an inventory of fish in the pens has been conducted.”
The mass escape comes as the company is considering a net-pen operation in the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Port Angeles, east of the Ediz Hook.
By Saturday afternoon, anchor lines to the pens broke, and walkways for servicing the pens tipped, making it unsafe for employees even to get in the water and assess the scope of the spill, Warren said.
Lummi fishers were incensed at the Atlantic salmon intruding in home waters of native Washington Pacific salmon. “It’s a devastation,” said Ellie Kinley, whose family has fished Puget Sound for generations. “We don’t want those fish preying on our baby salmon. And we don’t want them getting up in the rivers.”
G.I. James, a member of the Lummi Natural Resources staff and fish commission, said Pacific salmon face enough trouble as it is without dueling with invaders in their home waters. “It is potentially a disease issue, and impact on our fish, as dire a shape as they are in, right now any impact to them is difficult to absorb.”
The WDFW agreed with that concern. The department is urging recreational fishers to get as many of the Atlantic salmon as possible. A valid fishing license is needed, but the fish don’t need to be recorded on fish tickets and there are no bag limits. Buyers may also legally buy the Atlantics from commercial and tribal fishers, Warren said.
“Catch as many as you want,” he 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.”
He said the fish were placed in the pens in May 2016 and treated for yellow mouth, a bacterial infection, in July 2016. He said the fish that escaped are believed to be healthy and disease-free. “We have no concerns about disease at this point.”
Penalties for the escape are being evaluated, Warren said.