Northwest conservation group to file lawsuit over farmed salmon spill

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 conservation group said Friday it will sue Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture after net pens at a fish farm off Cypress Island collapsed last weekend, spilling thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.

Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest says it plans to sue Cooke for violation of the federal Clean Water Act, calling the net pen collapse “an environmental disaster of epic proportion.”

The company’s salmon farm off Cypress Island held 305,000 Atlantic salmon, a non-native species, when the pen collapsed Aug. 19. Cooke officials initially said 4,000 to 5,000 fish escaped, but later admitted the total could be much higher.

The conservation group said the release threatens native juvenile and adult Pacific salmon and steelhead, competing for food and potentially spawning in nearby rivers. It alleges the fish spill violates federal pollution laws because it sent farmed salmon, dead carcasses and other debris into the water.

Whatcom County fishermen have reported catching Atlantic salmon in Bellingham Bay as well as the Nooksack and Samish rivers, among other local hot spots. After declaring open season on Atlantic salmon earlier this week, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife is now asking anglers to report their catch online, though they are not required to record the Atlantic salmon on their catch cards.

Atlantic salmon catch
Luke Kinley of Whatcom County caught these Atlantic salmon while fishing near the Samish River Tuesday, Aug. 22. A fish farm off Cypress Island collapsed Aug. 19, releasing thousands of the non-native fish into the Salish Sea. Beau Garreau Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“We’re hoping to track how many Atlantic salmon have been recovered by sport anglers and how far those fish have dispersed,” said Ron Warren, head of WDFW’s fish program. “If you’ve caught one of these fish over the last few days, or if you catch one in the near future, please let us know.”

Anglers must have a current fishing license and abide by current regulation for marine fishing gear.

Warren said the fish are safe to eat, though Lummi Island Wild and other conservation groups note the fish were treated for yellow mouth, a bacterial infection, and some of the fish reported caught have deformed mouths.

Even before the spill, Wild Fish Conservancy planned an “Our Sound, Our Salmon” protest flotilla Sept. 16 off southern Bainbridge Island, where Cooke has three net pens. The group advocates banning Atlantic salmon net pens in Washington – the only West Coast state that allows open-water farms for Atlantic salmon.

“It’s like having a feed lot floating in the middle of your most important wild fish habitat,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of 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.”

Cooke has eight commercial salmon farms in Washington state after buying them from Icicle Seafoods last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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