The Salish Sea is a vast body of water, stretching from southwest British Columbia, Canada, to the northwest portion of Washington State, USA. It provides a saline habitat for thousands of animals. Seagulls squawk overhead, and sleek harbor seals make occasional appearances. Forests of kelp sway with the current. It is an amazing and unique place. But the Salish Sea is also home to non-native Atlantic Salmon. During the summer of 2017, over 200,000 Atlantic salmon escaped when their net pen collapsed.
What are Atlantic Salmon doing in the Salish Sea? They’re being farmed. Atlantic salmon are a favored species for farming in cold waters. The species grows quickly, is disease resistant, and is more docile than native salmon. Northwest fish farming started in the 1960’s. Now, Washington State has eight large net pens, and British Columbia has over 20.
The net pen collapse was catastrophic. The first incident occurred on July 24, 2017. At a Cooke Aquaculture fishery, strong currents dragged a whole net pen away from its mooring anchors. After this incident, Cooke promised to increase net cleaning, and add steel beams and plates to damaged walkways. About a month later, a combination of anchor dragging, strong currents, mooring attachment breaks, and net pen framing failure resulted in the whole pen collapsing. The net pen had been operating successfully for seven years, and had been designed to withstand the strongest of currents. Yet somehow, thousands of alien salmon were released into the Salish Sea.
After the collapse, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) investigated the site and found the net pen in poor condition. A primary cause was lack of cleaning, which led to biofouling, where mussels and other marine life collect on and damage underwater structures. Breakdowns in cleaning machines contributed to the dirty condition of the nets. The accumulated mussels blocked off net openings so water could not flow through, causing the net to drag. The drag force was so strong that it broke off the mooring points. All this added up to the net pen failure.
Cooke Aquaculture said they tried to save the net, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Cooke extracted dead fish and salvaged the net pen as best they could. DNR determined that 243,000-263,000 fish escaped, as opposed to Cooke’s report of only 160,000 fish. DNR concluded that of the escaped salmon, 57,000 have been caught and 186,000-206,000 remain unaccounted for.
Where are the Atlantic Salmon now? Are they in Washington streams, mating with native salmon? Since they’ve been domesticated for farming, they might just die in the wild. Or they could be competing with native salmon for food and breeding grounds. Because thousands of fish remain unaccounted for, who knows for sure?
As the escaped salmon linger in the Salish Sea, consequences begin. The head of DNR, Hilary Franz, has terminated Cooke Aquaculture’s lease to fish farm on state tidelands. A report by DNR and other state agencies found that Cooke violated the lease and caused the net pen collapse. The Washington State Department of Ecology fined the company $332,000 for water quality violations, which Cooke has appealed. Furthermore, Cooke did not clean up the debris left at the net pen collapse site. The state gave Cooke 60 days to clean it up. “We went in there and we determined they did not remove it all,” Franz said. Since then, Cooke has sued DNR to reverse the lease termination. Franz hopes that Cooke will work with DNR to safely close the facility. Also, the Washington State Senate has passed a bill to phase out Atlantic Salmon net pen farming by 2025.
The net pen collapse is a big wake up call. Right now, Cooke Aquaculture is at risk. California, Oregon, and Alaska are either phasing out or have banned fish farming at sea. If Cooke's Salish Sea fisheries are closed down, many jobs will be lost. But do we want Atlantic Salmon in the Salish Sea? Native salmon are at risk of competition in their own habitat. Human decisions heavily impact the Salish Sea. That habitat is ours to create, to change and to help. What do you think? Whatever we decide to do will affect the Salish Sea and all the animals that live there.