SEATTLE—Commercial fisher Ellie Kinley first laid eyes on the rogue Atlantic salmon early last Monday when her son sent her a photo of them. Those seven farmed fish should not have been in the nets. Kinley and her family are members of the Lummi Nation, a coastal tribe near Bellingham, Washington. They were fishing for chinook or king salmon, the largest Pacific species. The tribe passed along news of the Atlantic salmon to state officials, and that’s when the Lummi learned about the escape.
About 10 miles from where Kinley’s family was fishing, a neat grid of nets and steel that previously contained around 305,000 Atlantic salmon had become a mangled disarray of right angles gone wrong. The Cooke Aquaculture fish farm was first damaged on Saturday, August 19, and collapsed the next day. Cooke initially issued a statement, which spokesperson Nell Halse defended in an interview, blaming “[e]xceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with [last] week’s solar eclipse.” That explanation has its skeptics, however. (The company subsequently released a revised statement reiterating its view of exceptionally high tides but omitting mention of the eclipse.)
“The thing about tides is that they’re just marvelously predictable,” says Brian Polagye, a tidal energy expert and co-director of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center. “The tides are the response of the earth's oceans to the gravitational forces from the sun and moon.” While he acknowledges the tides in question were likely the strongest of the last two weeks, Polagye dismisses the eclipse connection and points out that the observed tides were actually slightly lower than predicted for the San Juan Islands, where the farm is located. He doesn’t doubt strong tidal currents were a factor, but calls this “part and parcel” of operating in this area.
Most other farmed fish escapes have been caused by human or mechanical error, says Michael Rust, science advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Aquaculture. Washington state has seen farmed Atlantic salmon slip to freedom before, with hundreds of thousands of fish escaping on a few occasions in the late 1990s. Cooke initially estimated that around 4,000 Atlantic salmon escaped this time, but that was before the entire structure, with its many layers and sections of nets, collapsed on itself. “Now we don’t know how many fish have actually escaped,” Halse says. “Many of them are now caught between the outside predator net and the inside containment net or in the nets themselves.”
The number matters when considering the potential impact of the escape. A spill of over 300,000 non-native fish could be consequential; a few thousand, less concerning. But Washington’s native Pacific salmon are already threatened and grappling with perils from habitat loss to hydropower. Now that their non-native cousins are free to mingle, what could happen?
Kinley, a commercial fisher for over three decades, is not optimistic. “The timing couldn’t be worse because our baby chinooks are coming out of the river,” she says. She worries the 10-pound adult farmed fish could prey on young Pacific salmon, which Barry Berejikian, a fishery biologist for the NOAA, estimates are currently running at about three or four pounds. But, he says, adult chinook, coho and pink salmon—now returning to spawn in rivers where they hatched—likely constitute the primary population of wild salmon in the vicinity of Cooke’s fresh-off-the-farm fish.
“Do these fish represent a serious threat to the Pacific ecosystem, both fresh and saltwater? The bottom line is we don’t know,” says University of Victoria ecologist John Volpe. His research in neighboring British Columbia—where fish farming operations dwarf those of Washington—found evidence around the turn of the 21st century that escaped Atlantic salmon could survive in the wild and even reproduce in Vancouver Island rivers. But almost two decades later Atlantic salmon are not considered established in the province, which has a wilder, more remote coastline than Washington’s. A recent report finds Canadian efforts to monitor B.C. salmon populations lacking.
Another risk is farmed fish transferring disease and parasites to wild salmon, a well-studied phenomenon that depends on factors including location, wild disease presence and ocean salinity. “But what’s a little less clear,” says Casey Ruff, a natural resource manager for northwest Washington’s Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, “is whether the adult fish are actually able to successfully spawn, interbreed with wild fish, how they compete, whether they eat similar food as the native salmon, as well as whether they actually prey on juvenile salmon. That’s definitely a concern.”
NOAA’s Rust acknowledges that many factors could contribute to potential problems, but he does not consider any a “high threat” for this area. For example, Washington fish farms don’t consider sea lice—marine parasites known to pass between wild and farmed salmon—to be a major issue, according to the state. In addition, Washington has no previous reports of Atlantic salmon successfully colonizing or spawning, despite earlier escapes. Interbreeding between the Atlantic and Pacific species also appears improbable.
Cleaning up a fish farm presents an entirely different set of challenges and concerns. Rust expects most of the escaped fish to stick close to the farm, though Kinley mentions one caught in the Nooksack River, roughly 15 miles away. Cooke Aquaculture is using seine nets to recapture its lost fish. Meanwhile, state authorities are asking the public to go fishing and catch as many Atlantic salmon as possible.
“You capture these, they’re yours,” Halse says. “You want to eat them, you want to sell them—do whatever you want with them.”
“Ew,” Kinley says. “Nobody is interested in eating them. I mean our diet is wild salmon.”
Still, Kinley’s sons and grandson have already caught plenty of the rogue fish. Early last Wednesday, as they pulled in the first net of the day, the crew was excited to see it teeming with fish—but that was before they realized which kind. “It was 50 Atlantic salmon and three king,” Kinley says. By day’s end they had caught 800 pounds of Atlantic salmon, only 20 pounds less than the kings. But their usual buyers are not interested.
Instead, for now the Lummi tribe is purchasing Atlantic escapees from its fishermen. “Just to give the incentive to give us the numbers of what they’re catching,” explains Kinley, who sits on the Lummi Natural Resource Fish Commission.
Whether the Atlantics are feasting on young native salmon is still unknown. Kinley doesn’t expect to find out for four years, when this spring’s juvenile king salmon start returning from the open ocean in order to spawn in local rivers. Their population is already listed as threatened, which makes tying future declines to the escaped fish tricky. Either way, the native salmon’s fate is essential for the Lummi, who call themselves “People of the Sea,” and have fought in court time and again for their treaty right to fish for salmon.
“Salmon and culture are the same thing,” Kinley says. “Without salmon, we have no culture.”