Fish Farm Fiasco Frazzles Fishermen
Atlantic salmon escape into Puget Sound after aging pen collapses
October 1, 2017
Commercial fishermen are naturally wary about fish farms for many socioeconomic reasons.
With wild Pacific salmon stocks floundering and fishing opportunities scarce, the August 20 collapse of a steel net pen in one of three fish farms owned by Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, off Cypress Island about 60 miles north of Seattle, has only exacerbated the enmity. The failure led to the "great escape" of at least 160,000 farmed Atlantic salmon from the aging facility. Officials from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) say they have tracked escapees as far north as the outer coast of Vancouver Island and into Washington rivers where wild salmon return to spawn.
In a statement about the incident, Cooke cited "exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week's solar eclipse" as the reason for the collapse.
Cooke Aquaculture is a global fish-farming company and the largest producer of Atlantic salmon in North America. The company, which markets the fish mostly to grocery retailers and mid- to large-size food service distributors, boasts about $1.8 billion in annual sales, including more than $31 million in Washington, where Cooke currently has 80 employees.
The company acquired the three farms at Cypress Island and five others in Puget Sound from Icicle Seafoods in 2016. Fish farming had been underway there for three decades, and the net pen that failed was installed 17 years ago. Market analysts say the Washington acquisition aimed to help the company expand and reach new markets.
Cooke officials say they intended to continue the company's practice of acquiring farms and upgrading them for top production. A key issue was the orientation of the failed farm, which was broadside to the current. They intended to turn the farm and install new equipment at a cost of $1.4 million immediately after the harvest, scheduled for September.
At the end of July, they worked on stabilizing the farm, working to steady it after it had begun to drift and move in heavy currents. The farm started drifting again on August 19, and collapsed the next day.
"We are deeply sorry about the incident at our Cypress Island farm," a company spokesperson noted. "We are focused on properly and safely removing the fish and equipment from the farm, and working with tribes, experts and agencies to meet our obligations."
Too Little Too Late
Fishermen, tribal members, federal and state agency officials, environmental group leaders, and others say the escapees pose a threat to wild Pacific salmon, including many regional stocks designated as endangered or threatened. They say farmed salmon tend to be larger and could outcompete wild salmon for critical resources, such as prey and preferred habitat vital for spawning.
Citing the importance of wild salmon fisheries to tribes, fishermen, and the state's ecosystem, the state's Congressional delegates – US senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and US representatives Rick Larsen, Derek Kilmer, Denny Heck, and Suzan DelBene – urged administrators for NOAA Fisheries and the US Army Corps of Engineers to take "quick and decisive" action to determine the impacts of the breach, mitigate the risks, including the capture of the escaped farmed salmon, and to work to stop all permits for new pens or a planned expansion of the facility, as well as prioritizing requests to update or maintain existing pens. While tribes, fishermen and state agencies were diligently responding to the situation, they said the scale of the escape required "immediate and direct federal response."
"Pacific salmon are central to our economy, our culture, and our environment in the Pacific Northwest, and are a critical part of marine and estuarine ecosystems in Washington," they noted in a letter to both agencies.
Governor Jay Inslee had already directed the state's ecology department to put on hold any new permits for net pens, and state officials formed a response team from the departments of natural resources, fish and wildlife, and ecology, as well as the governor's office and state emergency management division.
"The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington's waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon," Inslee said, noting that Cooke must stop additional escapes, recover escaped fish, and compensate those trying to capture the escaped fish.
Tribal, commercial, and recreational fishermen were urged to catch as many of the escaped salmon as possible, and report where they caught them, so state officials could trace how far they had gone. For some, it turned into a welcome fishing derby in the middle of what Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon salmon Commission, deems "a dismal season" for wild Pacific salmon.
On the Brink
Commercial salmon fishermen say the fishery is teetering on the edge of oblivion, and Fitzpatrick said they were none too pleased about the farmed salmon escape in Washington on top of everything else.
Most of the Oregon Coast was closed to salmon fishing in August, and is currently open only from Florence to Cape Falcon, with strict quotas in place.
So with a poor 2016 salmon season in their wake and a bleak 2017 season underway, the fishermen face considerable hardship. Some shun salmon fishing and turn to other fisheries to maintain their livelihoods. Henry DeRonden-Pos, a third generation salmon fisherman in Newport, Oregon who fishes aboard the 50-foot F/V New Dawn, is among them. A member of the Oregon salmon Commission, DeRonden-Pos says he refuses to give up, but views things pragmatically. He hedges his bets by also pursuing Dungeness crabs, albacore tuna, and halibut.
Unfortunately, those who turn to albacore this season face similarly daunting prospects.
"They're getting no reprieve," said Fitzpatrick, who is also the executive director of the Oregon Albacore Commission. As of mid-August, tuna fishermen had landed 1.2 million pounds values at $2.6 million. By this time in 2016, those numbers were 2.5 million pounds worth $4.1 million on the way to 7.2 million pounds worth $12.5 million.
"We have no idea why," Fitzpatrick noted. "It's not just Oregon, but the whole coast. Fishermen are out hunting and looking almost to the 200-mile line, and they're only bringing back maybe 12 to 20 fish per day. That's not tuna fishing."
It's not salmon fishing, either.
Since 2005, commercial salmon fishermen have watched their livelihoods dwindle to almost nil as the cumulative economic effects during the long stretch of poor fishing opportunities were substantial, not just for the commercial fishery, but recreational marine and freshwater fisheries and the communities that depend on them. When the Pacific Northwest salmon fishery collapsed in 2006, commercial and recreational fishermen and fishery managers agreed on the need to mitigate factors causing the decline. While the 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons brought somewhat of a reprieve for commercial fishermen, the crash and snail's-pace recovery are part of what fishery managers call a boom-and-bust cycle for salmon that will continue until they find a solution to overcome the effects of certain factors – among them habitat restoration, drought conditions in salmon's native rivers and worsening ocean conditions due to the effects of climate change - that prevent the fishery from returning to a steady commercially viable status.
This season won't help, and fishery observers say the outlook for 2018 is just as grim, if not worse.
Fitzpatrick says the way quotas and seasons are determined makes salmon "the most complicated and regulated fish in the Pacific Northwest." It has turned salmon into what Fitzpatrick calls a "credit card fishery," in which fishermen catch fish "on credit" this year and pay for it the following year through reduced quotas or other restrictions.
Fishermen say costs of prepping and putting a boat in the water keep rising, market prices and weather fluctuate, regulations and restrictions change, and the ongoing debate between wild versus hatchery fish continues.
To have wild salmon – an iconic integral part of Pacific Northwest culture and lore – disappear and give way to the farmed variety is unthinkable to fishermen like DeRonden-Pos. While fish farming advocates say they are in business to fill the gap from dwindling wild catches, opponents say aquaculture brings its own peculiar set of woes and concerns. They point to incidents like the Cypress Island facility failure as proof.
As of FN's press time, Cooke Aquaculture crews were winding down the "deconstruction" of the damaged net pen array. All ten stock nets had been removed, and 145,101 fish left on site were recovered, dead or alive.
Tribal, commercial, and recreational fishers continue to capture fish that escaped the enclosure, with WDFW collecting information on those catches.