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Atlantic salmon farm ready to pay fine after 2017 pen collapse near Bellingham

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.

A salmon-farming operation will pay $332,000 in fines for releasing a quarter-million Atlantic salmon into the northern Puget Sound when one of its floating pens collapsed in August 2017.

A statement Monday from the state Department of Ecology said that Cooke Aquaculture had dropped its appeal and agreed to pay the full fine.

“As a result of the investigation, Ecology fined Cooke for water quality permit violations that include: poor net cleaning and maintenance, failing to follow required protocol for repairs and insufficient attention to structural engineering,” Ecology’s Colleen Keltz said in an email.

Ecology officials said several government agencies investigated the incident near Cypress Island, about 10 miles southwest of Bellingham.

Lummi Nation fishermen discovered the incident when they started finding Atlantic salmon in their nets for chinook, according to published reports.

To combat a potential ecological disaster, state Fish and & Wildlife Department officials issued an open season for Atlantic salmon, waiving limits on size and number of fish for anyone with a valid license.

Fish and Wildlife lists Atlantic salmon an invasive species that competes with native fish and can spread disease.

Cooke Aquaculture officials blamed the collapse of their pen on unusually high tides and swift currents caused by the solar eclipse, but the environmental group Puget Soundkeeper Alliance disputed that claim, according to a Bellingham Herald story and other reports.

In 2018, the state Legislature approved a measure to end farming of non-native fish in Washington’s marine waters, effective in 2022.

Cooke still has four salmon pens near Hope Island, east of Deception Pass, and in Rich Passage, near Bainbridge Island, Ecology said.

“Ecology also is updating and strengthening the water quality permits for Cooke’s four remaining floating fish pens,” Keltz said.

As such, Cooke Aquaculture will face increasing state scrutiny, including video monitoring of net pens and inspections to assess structural integrity, cleanliness and maintenance, Ecology said.

Monday’s settlement said that $265,600 of the penalty will go to an environmental project related to regional salmon enhancements or habitat restoration, Ecology said, and the remaining $66,400 will go to the state’s Coastal Protection Fund.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.
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