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Are they safe to eat? Debate continues over escaped Atlantic salmon

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.

A Bellingham seafood company and other advocacy groups are warning people not to eat Atlantic salmon that escaped a fish farm Saturday after a net pen collapsed in the San Juan Islands.

But the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife has declared open season on the non-native salmon to prevent them from entering local rivers, saying the fish are safe to eat.

A crew of anglers and videographers with Lummi Island Wild headed to Cypress Island Wednesday morning to document the damage to the Cooke Aquaculture net pens, which the company said held about 305,000 salmon before they collapsed Aug. 19.

“We’re trying to defend our industry. ... We’re going out to document the truth,” said Riley Starks, spokesman for Lummi Island Wild, a cooperative that promotes sustainable fishing and uses reef nets to catch fish. “This is a real disaster.”

The Lummi Indian Business Council, concerned about native Chinook salmon listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, said it has deployed tribal boats to track and remove Atlantic salmon from local waters.

Merle Jefferson, Lummi Natural Resources director, called the fish spill a “disaster” that could potentially damage this year’s run.

“We are doing what we can to help limit the damage, but as far as we know, containment is indefinite,” Jefferson said in a statement. “These invasive fish are going to find our rivers. How many fingerlings can 300,000 Atlantic salmon eat in an hour?

The analogy we use is an oil spill, where you call residents to come out and bring their oil cans so they get free oil. That’s not ok.

Riley Starks, spokesman for Lummi Island Wild

Meanwhile, Fish & Wildlife officials are encouraging local anglers to catch as many of the Atlantic salmon as they can. There is no size or catch limit, but anglers can only fish for Atlantic salmon in marine waters that are already open for Pacific salmon or freshwater areas open for trout fishing.

“Our first concern, of course, is to protect native fish species,” said Ron Warren, head of WDFW’s Fish Program. “So we’d like to see as many of these escaped fish caught as possible.”

Starks said that’s the wrong message to be sending to people.

“The analogy we use is an oil spill, where you call residents to come out and bring their oil cans so they get free oil,” he said. “That’s not ok. ... It’s not safe to eat those fish.”

Lummi Island Wild and groups like the Wild Fish Conservancy are concerned the Atlantic salmon have not been tested for disease or viruses like the one found in Canadian fish farms in 2016.

“It’s like having a feed lot floating in the middle of your most important wild fish habitat,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director with the Wild Fish Conservancy, in a video on Lummi Island Wild’s Facebook page. “No other industry can put all it’s waste into public waters and get away with it. ... We shouldn’t have to put up with it.”

However, Warren said there is no evidence the Atlantic salmon pose a threat to native stocks, either through disease or crossbreeding with Pacific salmon.

The net pen collapse came as Cooke Aquaculture was seeking to expand its operations in Washington, including updating the Cypress Island site and plans to open a net pen operation near Port Angeles, east of Cadiz Hook.

Cooke said it’s working to stabilize the Cypress Island net pens and recover as many fish as possible.

According to the Department of Ecology, the state has eight commercial salmon farms operating under guidelines that are 20 years old. Department officials are working on updating management recommendations, which could result in a change of regulations for which new facilities could get permitted.

Derrick Nunnally of The News Tribune in Tacoma contributed to this story.

Jim Donaldson: 360-715-2288. @BhamHerald

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