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Atlantic salmon escaped from fish farm may not survive long, biologist says

Fish & Wildlife talks about catching escaped Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound

Danny Garrett with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife talks about recreational fishing for escaped Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound, after a fish farm's net pen collapsed August 19 and release thousands of fish.
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Danny Garrett with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife talks about recreational fishing for escaped Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound, after a fish farm's net pen collapsed August 19 and release thousands of fish.

Sport fishermen say they have caught Atlantic salmon in the Skagit, Samish and Nooksack rivers this week, and visitors to Deception Pass State Park have seen the fish jumping along the shores of Bowman Bay and West Beach.

The Atlantic salmon made their way into area waters when a net pen at a Cypress Island fish farm broke Aug. 19.

A map by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, created from catch reports by area anglers, shows the non-native fish have spread across the U.S.-Canada border to both sides of Vancouver Island. The salmon also have been caught in several spots in the San Juan Islands, in south Puget Sound and where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the open ocean.

Fish & Wildlife also received a report that one was caught in the Columbia River along the border with Oregon, but agency spokesman Bruce Botka said that report was not reliable.

This week, tribes have reported hauling thousands of the fish out of the water and sport fishermen have reported catching about 1,400 fish, according Fish & Wildlife.

History has shown that they’re not very good at adapting to the wild … the majority of them will presumably be prey or starve to death.

Brett Barkdull, a fish biologist with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife

Brett Barkdull, a fish biologist with Fish & Wildlife, said although not reflected on the online map, fishermen also have caught Atlantic salmon in the Nooksack and Skagit rivers.

The Atlantic salmon have not traveled far upstream, however, as Fish & Wildlife staff have not encountered them while conducting surveys of spawning chinook and pink salmon in the mid-to-upper reaches of those rivers, the Sauk and Suiattle rivers, and tributary streams, Barkdull said.

He said he’s not worried about the non-native, farm-raised Atlantic salmon threatening native Pacific salmon species, at least for long.

“This isn’t the first time this has happened by any means. There has been intentional introduction of Atlantic salmon in the past and we’ve had some major releases of them in the past and there were no signs of successful reproduction,” Barkdull said. “History has shown that they’re not very good at adapting to the wild … the majority of them will presumably be prey or starve to death.”

Meanwhile, several members of Congress sent a letter Wednesday to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Army Corps of Engineers demanding federal action to protect native salmon from the potential impacts of the farmed fish.

“The released Atlantic salmon pose a threat to wild Pacific salmon, including multiple endangered and threatened stocks in the region. Tribes, fishermen, and state agencies are working to respond to the escapement but the scale of the release calls for immediate and direct federal response,” wrote the members, who include Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen.

141,576 Fish removed from a damaged net pen by Cooke Aquaculture on Tuesday before the company dismantled the pen.

Although Cooke Aquaculture, the company that operates the Cypress Island fish farm, has not released an official statement on the number of fish lost, about half of the 305,000 that were in the net before it broke remain unaccounted for.

While the Atlantic salmon are now widely dispersed, they don’t seem to be using the same waters that Pacific salmon tend to favor.

“They act different than native fish by a long shot. They’ve mostly been hanging out along the beaches in shallow water,” Barkdull said. “They’re not really hanging out in typical Pacific salmon type areas.”

Many of the Atlantic salmon also haven’t traveled far from the farm. Cooke Aquaculture removed 141,576 of the fish out of the damaged net before removing the net Tuesday.

The majority of the catches reported by sport fishermen have been around Cypress, Guemes and the San Juan Islands.

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