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Fish farm fiasco: Why officials want you to catch as many salmon as you can

Aerial footage of salmon net damaged during eclipse’s high tides

Aerial footage of a net holding more than 300,000 salmon that broke amid the eclipse's high tides near the San Juan Islands.
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Aerial footage of a net holding more than 300,000 salmon that broke amid the eclipse's high tides near the San Juan Islands.

The massive collapse of a fish farm near Cypress Island last weekend has state officials declaring an open season on Atlantic salmon, a species that could harm native stock in the Salish Sea.

Members of Lummi Nation were fishing for chinook Sunday in Samish Bay and, to their surprise, netted several Atlantic salmon. More of the farmed fish were caught again Monday, according to a Seattle Times report.

“It’s a devastation,” Ellie Kinley, whose family has fished Puget Sound for generations, told the Times. “We don’t want those fish preying on our baby salmon. And we don’t want them getting up in the rivers.”

Atlantic salmon also were reported caught in Bellingham Bay on Tuesday, according to Northwest Sportsman Magazine.

In a statement, officials with Cooke Aquaculture Pacific – which bought Icicle Seafoods in 2016 – blamed the damage to its salmon pens on “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse.”

The estimated 305,000 fish in the pens that collapsed Saturday were due to be harvested soon, the company said.

“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 environmental group Puget Soundkeeper Alliance disputed Cooke’s explanation, saying there were at least 11 days with higher tides over the last month.

“Cooke’s statement is misleading, distracting from their failure to secure the pens safely and to adequately prepare for predictable tide events,” the Soundkeeper said in a blog post Tuesday.

The group is opposed to Cooke’s proposed expansion in the region – the Canada-based seafood company wants to move a fish pen near Port Angeles and install up to 20 more sites in the Puget Sound area, it said.

Farming Atlantic salmon “poses a tremendous risk to native fish stocks,” the Soundkeeper said. “These fish do not belong in our waters.”

Atlantic salmon are listed as an aquatic invasive species by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, which is concerned about the fish competing with native stocks and their potential to spread disease.

Catch as many as you want. We don’t want anything competing with our natural populations.

Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife

Meanwhile, state Fish & Wildlife officials are urging the public to catch as many Atlantic salmon as possible, with no limit on size or number – you’ll still need a valid fishing license, but don’t need to record your catch on fish tickets.

Also, commercial and tribal fishermen can legally sell the Atlantic salmon to potential customers, officials said.

“Catch as many as you want,” said Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for WDFW. “We don’t want anything competing with our natural populations. We have never seen a successful cross breeding with Atlantic salmon, but we don’t want to test the theory.”

The department is evaluating potential penalties against Cooke Aquaculture, Warren said.

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