After a structural failure at Cooke Aquaculture’s Cypress Island fish farming facility last month, thousands of the site’s 305,000 non-native Atlantic salmon streamed out into Puget Sound. Since they scattered, Atlantic salmon have been caught as far away as Monroe, Hoodsport and off the state’s Pacific coastline.
As environmental activists worry about the effects of the site failure, they’re turning their attention to similar operations Cooke runs in Rich Passage and calling for the company to leave Puget Sound.
Activists say the company’s net pens can be breeding grounds for diseases that can infect native fish, and they point to the danger posed by a 2012 outbreak of infectious hematopoietic necrosis (IHN) virus in the Rich Passage pens. Then the pens were owned by American Gold Seafoods, which was forced to kill thousands of its Atlantic salmon there.
Disease potential, waste from the fish in the pens, the possibility of the escape of non-native species as happened at Cypress Island, all have activists concerned.
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“I want to see those net pens disappear all over our waters,” said Bainbridge’s Maradel Gale, an activist who joined a protest at Cook’s Rich Passage site on Saturday. “We just shouldn’t have these.”
I struggle to find an individual that knows anything about these pens and supports having them in Puget Sound.
Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, an environmental watchdog group
Repeated requests for comment from the company for this story have not been returned, but in a statement on its website, Cooke has apologized for the Cypress incident and has said it is working with local authorities to recapture the thousands of fish that escaped.
The Department of Natural Resources estimates that the failure released more than 165,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. Anglers have reported catching about 1,900 of the fish.
Wild Fish Conservancy, an environmental watchdog group, announced last month plans to sue Cooke Aquaculture for its net pen failure at Cypress Island, citing the “dire threat” that the escaped Atlantic salmon pose to native fish populations and the Puget Sound ecosystem.
When asked about the possibility of diseases jumping to native fish, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which monitors the health of the net pens, pointed to a 1999 report released following Atlantic salmon escapes in 1996, 1997 and 1999. In the report, researchers acknowledged that such a transfer could happen but wasn’t likely. Researchers also said it was likely that many of the Atlantic salmon would die soon after escape because of their highly domesticated nature.
Washington has the largest marine finfish aquaculture industry in the country, producing more than 17 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually.
Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, which also organized Saturday’s protest at the Bainbridge pens, said the industry could move to land-based operations and still be profitable. No pollutants would touch the water and escapes would be impossible, he said.
“I struggle to find an individual that knows anything about these pens and supports having them in Puget Sound,” he said. “All we can find is people who don’t want them. The only people who support them are the industry itself and the (government) agencies. Where’s the public’s interest in this?”
According to the state’s Department of Ecology, Washington has the largest marine finfish aquaculture industry in the country, producing more than 17 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually.
Cooke operates its four Puget Sound sites under leases with the state Department of Natural Resources. Under the terms of its contract for its Rich Passage site, Cooke pays the state $25,000 in rent annually plus quarterly payments based on its production at the site.
Permitting and oversight for the pens comes by way of a complex web of government agencies. Cooke is responsible for monitoring and reporting data on the structural integrity of its net pens and the health of the fish within them, representatives for those agencies said.
The Department of Natural Resources sends a representative to check Cooke’s Rich Passage facility every other year, the agency reported. Its last visit to the site was in November 2015. In those visits, it checks general lease compliance, but relies on Cooke to make detailed checks.
“They do self data-reporting,” said Cori Simmons, a spokeswoman for Department of Natural Resources. “We look through that data and look for aberrations, and intermittently we do unplanned visits and inspections.”
Michelle Dunlop, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said Cooke is responsible for self-reporting information on the health of its fish and said normally representatives don’t visit the sites for disease inspections.
“We monitor the fish that are in the pens,” she said. “We’re provided with reports from Cooke, both before they transfer fish into the pens and while they’re in the net pens.”
Beardslee, with Wild Fish Conservancy, said government agencies aren’t maintaining adequate oversight for Cooke and its salmon farming operations in Puget Sound. The industry isn’t transparent and the agencies have no control, he said.
“The industry’s in control,” he said. “The agencies are not, and I don’t understand why that’s the case.”