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The Great Atlantic Salmon Escape

The Great Atlantic Salmon Escape


The dust is beginning to settle in the aftermath of a massive and widely reported marine aquaculture failure in northern Puget sound, and the implications are huge. Long-standing concerns about the both the impacts to regional ecology and the greater sustainability of the overall industry are now on the table, with stakeholders taking sides.

On August 19th, an enormous floating net pen near Cypress Island northwest of Seattle -- filled with several million pounds of farmed Atlantic Salmon -- failed during a period of relatively normal tidal stress, with the structure partially capsizing to allow the majority of the 304,000 contained market ready and mature fish to escape into Puget Sound. The operation's owners, Cooke Aquaculture, a globally active corporation with $1.8 Billion in worldwide sales, initially stated that the failure of the net pen was due to usually high tides stemming from last month's solar eclipse event, but amended that position when it came to light that the net pen structure had been purchased used in 2016. Cooke was granted a permit for replacement of the enclosure this year as it had been determined that stresses from the marine environment (primarily rust and relentless flexing) had taken it's toll and pushed the structure to the end of it's usable life.

Atlantic Salmon (Salmo Salar), are an anadromous species that are native to the coastal marine drainages of northern Europe, ranging across the northern Atlantic to both Iceland and Greenland, and with strong historical populations in the maritime provinces of eastern Canada and New England.  As opposed to pacific salmon -- and similar to Steelhead (Oncorynchus Mykiss) -- they are iteroparous (vs. semelparous), not typically dying immediately after spawning, but rejuvenating after the act and returning to the ocean to feed and recover for several more potential reproductive cycles spanning several years.

With fingers being pointed in every direction, Fly Fisherman called on it's own network of professionals with boots on the ground in the region to help make sense of the current situation.  Chase Gunnell, a long-time Washington saltwater angler and board member of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, fishes the area around Cypress Island regularly for salmon and lingcod, and was quick to point out the inaccuracy of Cooke Aquaculture's claims that the net pen failure was the result of unexpected currents from the solar eclipse.

"Strong currents, so much so that it feels like you're piloting up or down a saltwater river, are an almost daily occurrence in the San Juan Islands," said Gunnell. "The tide tables showed nothing unusual for the day of the net pen failure, and current data afterwards actually showed less water movement than what was predicted."

"So either Cooke's placement of blame on eclipse tides indicates a gross failure to plan for a predictable natural event, or it's a load of B.S.," he added. "This was operator error, and the operator needs to be held accountable, especially as they have proposed to expand these net pens around our region. A temporary ban on new or expanded Atlantic salmon net pens in Washington's marine waters is a good start, but it's well past time we join Oregon, California and Alaska in banning these risky operations."


Veteran Guide Leland Miyawaki weighed in via Facebook as well.

"Whatever license and permit fees Cooke Aquaculture and others pay our state can never make up for the pollutants and disease that flow into Puget Sound from the thousands of zombie salmon in their net pens. And now when our marine areas are closed to all fishing to protect returning endangered chinook salmon, over 304,000 ten-pound Jailbreak Salmon are loosed to run up our streams and, even though sterile, their sheer numbers will surely upset the spawning of the wild fish.

The question is, How many chinook eggs will go unfertilized? How many juveniles are being consumed now? How many wild chinook, steelhead, cutthroat will we have in the coming years? We shouldn't have allowed Cooke here in the first place and we had damned well better not let them in Port Angeles!"

Rich Sims, voted Fy Fisherman's environmentalist of the year in 2016 for his work in the Puget Sound region summed up the situation simply by saying that , "With everything else that they have to contend with, Puget Sound salmon populations don't really need this kind of help right now."


Long before Cooke Aquaculture came on the scene, Atlantic Salmon had been introduced to the waters of the southern Salish Sea.  Starting with some failed experimental state sponsored stocking in 1950's in Washington lakes, Salmo Salar never managed to get a toehold to establish spawning runs in the rivers of Puget Sound. Feasibility studies for the raising of Atlantics in Puget Sound began in 1971, and by 1983, commercial aquaculture in the waters off Seattle began to look at the species as a profitable alternative to farming pacific salmon, finding the fish more resistant to disease in the crowded "farm raised" conditions, and as an arguably better tasting -- or at least consumer alternative -- table fish.  By 1987, full scale operations were being conducted, and potential impacts had come to the attention of the US Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA.

In followup communication with Chase Gunnell, he made the point to me that increased amounts of sea lice being shed from the penned Atlantics may well be a factor in survivability of pacific salmon and steelhead smolts entering marine estuaries near where aquaculture facilities are located. An unfortunate example would be operations raising fish near the mouth of the of the Elwah River on the Olympic peninsula, with it's newly and hard fought dam removal and restoration efforts.  Sea lice are voracious parasites that, while a serious nuisance to adult fish, can easily suck the life out of a fingerling weighing only a few ounces.

Chase's input sent me down a different line of inquiry. Researching this article, I encountered a considerable amount of published government and academic data outlining the devastating population decline of pacific salmon in Puget Sound waters over the last 30+ years. In my limited experience with fisheries science, the only parallel event that I knew of was that of the profound effect that the introduction of Whirling Disease in Colorado had on Rainbow Trout in the 1990's. In that instance, stocks of Brown Trout from Germany that harbored myxosporean parasites endemic to European waters were shipped to a private hatchery in Ft. Collins, north of Denver.  Through a series of misadventures, the piscine pathogens subsequently found their way into state waters, resulting in the death of over 90% of wild rainbows spanning a period of ten years starting in the early 1990's.  Naturally resistant strains of Rainbows have now reestablished themselves, but the organism remains embedded in stream bottoms statewide.

More than one of the EPA documents relating to pacific salmon initiated the timeframe for the regional depopulation event as starting in 1984, the year after the NOAA document linked above states that the last introduction of commercial strains of Atlantic Salmon had been made (see page 7).  The eggs for these fish had originated in hatcheries on the US east coast and in Canada, and had been sent to operations in Washington in a cooperative rearing effort to bolster eastern stocks, but ultimately, second generation eggs and progeny were refused to be accepted for return as they had been exposed to the aquatic biology of Puget Sound and presented a percieved pathological hazard. Viable eggs produced from the farmed Atlantics via these bloodlines that were cultured in Washington were then apparently distributed to startup commercial aquaculture operations in Puget Sound.


Assuming that ongoing loss of adult fish is an expected cost of doing business in the aquaculture industry, especially in startup operations, could it reasonably be proposed that Atantics introduced prior to 1983 may have harbored or incubated an unknown waterborne pathogen that could be responsible for the documented and accelerated subsequent decline of pacific species? While having been biologically engineered to be unable to reproduce, escaped Atlantic salmon do appear to still have an instinct to run upriver in false spawning behavior, presenting potential threat as a disease vector to the viable offspring of native species in headwater streams. Salmonid escapees from Chilean aquaculture have now fully colonized drainages there to the point that a viable sportfishery has developed to target them. However, Chile had no salmon or trout prior to the introduction of either, and impacts to native species there have not been generally considered.

Wild, juvenile Atlantic salmon have been captured in the Tsitika River in British Columbia,  evidence that a very small number of naturally spawned Atlantics have been reared in Canadian coastal rivers, and indicating that commercial stocks of Salmo Salar are not uniformly sterile. Currently, no evidence of this -- or research -- has been observed or conducted in the Puget Sound drainage (see cited NOAA document, page 48). However, numerous American studies indicate problems at various points in the development cycle of salmonid smolts, with no concrete causation identified at this point other than a failure to thrive.

The introduction of Atlantic Salmon for the purposes of commercial aquaculture in Puget Sound has ushered in a parallel era of decline for native species.  The latest spectacular net pen failure off Seattle has brought the issue under scrutiny that may well drive significant and overdue policy change.

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