More than three months after being released during the collapse of a fish farm near Cypress Island, Atlantic salmon are being caught about 40 miles up the Skagit River.
“Virtually every time we have done work in the river we have encountered Atlantics along the way,” Upper Skagit Indian Tribe Natural Resources Director Scott Schuyler said.
Since the Aug. 20 collapse, Schuyler said Upper Skagit fishermen and fisheries crews have caught the nonnative fish in Mount Vernon, near Lyman and east of Hamilton while pursuing native salmon.
Most recently, a crew gathering chum to stock the tribal hatchery caught dozens of the farm-raised fish east of Hamilton, about 40 miles from the mouth of the Skagit River.
On Thursday, the tribe caught more Atlantic salmon than chum – a ratio of 6 to 4 – in the quarter-mile area of the river used for the hatchery work.
“The concern is that if we’re catching this many Atlantic salmon in this small area of the river, it’s not a stretch to assume they are upstream in spawning areas and interfering with wild fish,” Schuyler said.
Their presence in the Skagit River system suggests that while Cooke Aquaculture, the company that owns the collapsed farm, said the farmed fish would not survive outside their net pens, some are alive and mingling with Pacific salmon.
The question is how many.
Of 305,000 fish in the farm before it collapsed, about 102,000 remained unaccounted for as of Oct. 1, according to catch totals from various groups.
Cooke spokeswoman Nell Halse said the company isn’t entirely sure the fish the tribe is catching are Atlantic salmon from its collapsed farm.
“Our investigation is ongoing so we can’t provide more information at this time,” she said in an email.
State Department of Fish & Wildlife spokesman Bruce Botka said the agency last received a report of sport fishermen catching Atlantic salmon Nov. 14.
If the nonnative fish are now infiltrating salmon spawning grounds in the upper Skagit River, tribes and others are anxious about how the Atlantic salmon will affect the already imperiled wild Pacific salmon in the river.
“It still raises the question ... How do they interact with the wild fish? Is there displacement happening?” Schuyler said.
In November, the nonprofit Wild Fish Conservancy filed a lawsuit against Cooke.
“This escape has forced the public to accept a huge gamble that depressed populations of wild, native salmon and steelhead will not be harmed by this non-native invader,” conservancy fisheries scientist Nick Gayeski said in a news release.
The conservancy argues that the collapse and subsequent release of fish and debris from the farm violated the federal Clean Water Act.
The conservancy and others, including the Skagit Watershed Council, believe the farm-raised fish could compete with Pacific salmon for habitat and food, and could spread disease to or interbreed with the wild fish.