Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Sick Fish


April 1, 2018

We have already covered in previous columns the sequence of blunders and misrepresentations by the State of Washington and Cooke Aquaculture following the net pen collapse at Cypress Island that disgorged 260,000 farmed Atlantic salmon into the fertile waters of Puget Sound. Now a report released by the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) shows that the escaped Atlantic salmon were infected with a highly contagious and harmful virus.

In late July, Cooke Aquaculture reported to the state that there were concerns over “strong flood tides” but internal memos revealed that in reality the pens were decrepit and plagued with problems including fouled nets and weak mooring points. The company also reported internally about mooring failures, the unreliability of net washing systems and an inability to keep up with net hygiene.

On Saturday August 19th a boater and his family were setting crab pots near the site when they “heard odd noises” coming from the pen at about 3:30 pm. As they watched, the pen began to self-destruct, albeit slowly and unpredictably. He called 911 at 3:45. The operator called the Coast Guard, who notified the Department of Ecology (Ecology).

In spite of the issues brought to light in July, the state’s response was lackluster. The Ecology after-hours responder attempted to contact Cooke’s office but received no answer, and so made a note to follow up with Cooke on Monday morning.

On Monday morning, two days after the breach, state agency staff specializing in net pen management began their “active” response.

The state reports that this response consisted of all three state agencies relying on reports from Cooke on the condition of the net pen through Tuesday, August 22.

On Saturday, August 26th, the bureaucrats in charge, including the Commissioner of Public Lands and the directors of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife, established a Unified Incident Command to coordinate the state response.

While the state fiddled, 260,000 escaped farmed Atlantic salmon were swimming virtually unmolested throughout the Salish Sea. Meanwhile, Ecology was observing the scene, DNR was evaluating existing facilities and DFW was working with tribal fishermen on fish recovery. The agencies hadn’t sought the help or input of any non-tribal commercial fishermen, and haven’t to date.

In February, WFC received test results from an independent lab at the University of Prince Edward Island. WFC contracted the lab to test heart, gill, and kidney tissue samples obtained from 19 Atlantic salmon collected after the massive Cypress Island net pen escape. The 19 fish were donated to WFC by commercial, tribal, and recreational fishermen, and were caught in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the site of the Cypress Island escape, and 50 miles up the Skagit River.

Although the incident occurred in August 2017, escaped fish are being caught in and around Puget Sound into late February 2018.

PRV is a highly contagious and debilitating salmonid virus, and is proven to be the cause of heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) disease. HSMI causes a crippling onset of symptoms in salmonids that would either kill or render a wild fish incapable of surviving in natural conditions. The disease has caused up to 20 percent mortality in Atlantic salmon net pens in Norway, and significant mortalities have also been reported in farmed Atlantic salmon in Scotland and Chile.

PRV survives well in seawater, and is known to spread out long distances from farms. The spread of PRV from farmed Atlantic to wild salmon has been well documented, and can reduce a salmon’s ability to compete and survive in the wild. For a wild fish, reduced performance means a reduced ability to capture prey, evade predators, and swim upriver to spawn.

A statistical analysis conducted by WFC ecologist Dr. Nick Gayeski suggests the disease is highly prevalent in escaped farmed salmon from Cypress Island. “Based on the results of this sampling,” Dr. Gayeski said, “I estimate that more than 99.9% of the 260,000-plus fish that escaped from the Cypress Island net pen are infected with PRV. For all practical purposes, all of the escaped fish are most likely infected with the PRV virus.”

The independent lab results corroborate Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) recently released report detailing their own findings of PRV-positive Atlantic salmon originating from Cooke Aquaculture’s Cypress Island net pen facility.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, says the lab work presents another stunning revelation: the strain of PRV present in 100 percent of the tested samples is of Norwegian origin, which raises concerns as to whether Cooke Aquaculture is stocking open-water net pens in our public waters with infected Atlantic salmon.

Meanwhile, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific takes “great offense” to the report released by WFC. A frantic press release by the company’s VP of public relations says WFC is making “false and misleading claims.” Cooke further asserts, “Banning Atlantic salmon farming will not bring a single wild salmon back into Puget Sound and will not enhance the fishery.”

That may be so, but it’s out of Cooke’s hands.

A bill to phase out existing Atlantic salmon aquaculture in the state of Washington by 2025 and ban new leases was approved by the Washington State House of Representatives in February and is expected to be signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee. Cooke plans to sue the state.

Let’s hope the state’s response to Cooke’s suit is more energetic than their response to Cooke’s spill.

Chris Philips can be reached at: 206-284-8285 or email:


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