The collapse of an Atlantic salmon net pen last August was preceded by a serious breakdown less than a month earlier in which nearly half of its anchor lines snapped, according to a report to state regulators.
Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, the owner of the Cypress Island net pen, last week filed a detailed chronology of the net pen collapse that spewed more than 160,000 adult Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. More than 100,000 of those fish are still unaccounted for.
The report was provided to state investigators seeking to understand what happened during the fish-farm collapse and why.
Jill Davenport was crabbing with her family as the farm started to come apart – and her photos and videos taken that day show the farm heaving and breaking apart. She watched as a generator and fuel tank toppled into the water, and heard chain dragging across the gangways as they buckled, she said in an interview with The Seattle Times.
Buoys 6 feet across shot loose from the corners they were supposed to moor. “I didn’t see any people, and it looked like something people needed to know about, so I called 911,” Davenport said.
“No government agencies were out there, and we were out there for four hours after we called 911,” she said. “We were circling, trying to see if there were any people.” She finally spotted one Cooke employee on the doomed farm.
“We locked eyes, and he raised his arms in the air, and I raised mine, and he said, ‘Called the boss!’ “ she said.
Eventually people began arriving, first by skiff, then a tugboat.
The Cypress Island farm has been completely removed from the water, and the state is continuing its investigation of what happened and why.
She didn’t see any escaped fish then, but when she came back on Friday “the water was boiling with fish,” Davenport said. She tried catching some Atlantic salmon; they hit her boat, but not her line. The Atlantics, used to food pellets, wouldn’t take live bait – though marshmallows helped some anglers, she noted.
According to Cooke’s report, the farm had been moved in 2011 by its previous owners to its recent location in Deepwater Bay to improve water circulation and conditions of the sea bed beneath the pen.
Not long after it bought the farm last year, Cooke filed an application to replace the facility and turn it to a different orientation, from its position broadside to the current. In its application for a permit for the work back in February, Cooke noted corrosion and metal fatigue that put the farm past its useful life. A total replacement was in order, Cooke reported to state regulators – but not until after its harvest, scheduled for August.
But as early as July, there was serious trouble at the farm.
On July 24, at about 7 p.m., staff reported to Cooke management that the farm, with 10 pens full of nearly adult fish, was slipping its moorings. Ten of 22 anchors on the cages had broken free and others were dragging as the entire farm slipped.
Cooke called in tugboats to stabilize the drifting farm, and work went on though the night to re-secure it by replacing anchors and reattaching moorings.
Divers looking over the farm on July 25 found no fish had escaped. But that same day, anchors that had been reattached overnight broke free again, and the farm began once again to drift away, threatening the stability of walkways floating between the 10 pens.
It took tugboats and Cooke’s own vessels working through the night to again tie the farm back to the sea floor and secure it.
The company worked through three days resetting and replacing the mooring system for the entire facility. Divers inspected the nets and found them secure, and the fish – 305,000 of them, 8 to 10 pounds each – still inside.
Less than a month later, on Aug. 19, Cypress Island staff had the same problems. But this time, major damage also occurred on the east end of the farm. Two anchors failed, three others dragged and another was torn apart, with parts broken to pieces, including a snapped safety chain.
This time there were holes in the net, too, but not yet any sign that fish had escaped.
Staff worked to tie down fuel cells and generators and secure broken walkways, floating atop the water, with chain.
During an inspection at first light on Aug. 20, the site appeared to be stable. Then, a little more than two hours later, a corner anchor failed. Staff tried to stabilize it by reattaching anchor lines as before, but this time walkways and surface structures of the farm became too unsafe to work on.
Divers tried to move fish from one cage to another but couldn’t safely enter the water as the fish farm continued to move and come apart, with cages starting to sink. Staff began to see Atlantics swimming outside the pen, but still within the predator net that encircled the farm. Cooke called its regulators to inform them of the net damage – and possible escape.
By Aug. 21, Cooke was still struggling to secure the farm, but walkways were continuing to twist. Cooke again tried to remove fish from the pens but couldn’t because of strong currents and unsafe conditions. It was no better the next day, and by Aug. 23 the farm was a total loss. It was not until Aug. 26 that Cooke could stabilize the site and focus on slurping fish out of the pens with a vacuum hose and scrapping the farm.
The farm has since been completely removed from the water, and the state is continuing its investigation of what happened and why. Some saw an accident bound to happen.
“It seems they downplayed the July incident,” said Tom Wooten, chairman of the Samish Indian Nation, whose territorial waters include the fish-farm site.
“They made it sound like everything was fine, like they had re-secured everything,” He said. “I wish more had been done. But then, wishing and doing are two different things.”
Cooke declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.