The Great Escape: Farmed Atlantic Salmon Are On The Loose In The Pacific Ocean


Pacific salmon (left) and farmed Atlantic salmon (right).  Photo Megan Farmer

On August 19, just before the total solar eclipse, a 1.8 acre open-pen fish farm operated by Cooke Aquaculture broke open and release an estimated 300,000 invasive Atlantic Salmon into the Pacific Ocean.  The Canadian company, operating in Washington State waters, initially reported that exceptionally high tides and currents caused by the solar eclipse were to blame for the failure of the pen and the release of several thousand Atlantic salmon.  Several days later Cooke Aquaculture revised the number of escapees by several orders of magnitude and backed off the claim that the solar eclipse was to blame.  For good reason too.  In February of 2017, Cooke had submitted a permit to replace the 30 year old pen because of corrosion, rusting and nearing the end of its serviceable life.  Additionally, one month prior to the massive escape, Cooke staged an emergency repair to stabilize the aging and decrepit facility.


Cooke Aquaculture net pen off Cypress Island in the San Juan Islands.                                         Photo by Beau Garreau.

The organized response to this massive ichthyological escape and potential ecological disaster took a couple days to get started.  The state-approved Fish Escape and Prevention Plan hadn’t taken into consideration that an event of this nature could happen on a weekend and only had office numbers to call in case of an emergency.  It took several days to notify key personnel and organize a ‘rapid’ response team.  Tribal fishermen, who rely on native Pacific salmon, quickly mobilized and began catching as many invasive Atlantic salmon as possible.  Reports from the Lummi Nation said that tribal fisherman were able to recapture over 43,000 of the invasive Atlantic salmon in the weeks that followed the pen rupture.  As of mid-September Atlantic salmon have been reported over 40 times in British Colombian waters, some as far as 250 km north of the San Juan Islands where the pen was anchored.  Between 2011 and 2017 there were 3 reports of Atlantic salmon off the coast of British Columbia.


Lummi Nation fishermen catching Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island.                          Photograph by Brandon Sawaya

Open-pen fish farms like the one operated by Cooke are illegal in California, Oregon and Alaska, making Washington the only state in the western U.S. to allow this type of ocean farming.  There are 5000 aquatic leases (like the Cooke farm) in Washington State waters that the Washington Department of Natural Resources allows to “self-regulate” in terms of pollution and equipment condition.

Representatives from Cooke, NOAA and the Washing Department of Fish and Wildlife called the great escape a ‘serious situation’ but stated that no lasting damage would be done.  Tribal representatives disagree.  Possible consequences of this event include hybridization between Pacific and Atlantic salmon (somewhat unlikely but possible), increased predation pressure on the food resources that Pacific salmon rely upon, displacement from feeding and spawning areas and the introduction of disease into native Pacific salmon populations.

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