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Fish Farm Escape: Intent To Sue Filed, Washington Sets Up Incident Command Structure To Contain
Posted on Friday, September 01, 2017 (PST)

In the week since thousands of Atlantic salmon escaped a fish farm in Puget Sound’s San Juan Islands, the state of Washington has asked anglers to catch and keep the farmed salmon, formed a containment and recovery team of three state agencies (an Incident Command structure) and placed a moratorium on further permits for farmed salmon in Washington until the reasons for the escape are better known.


Also this week, the accidental release of the non-native salmon has spurred Lummi Nation fishermen to help remove the fish, catching thousands of the fish, and a conservation group is threatening to sue the fish farm under the federal Clean Water Act.


The net pens – cages where the salmon are reared – that held the non-native salmon collapsed and an unknown number of the fish escaped into surrounding waters August 19. There were as many as 305,000 fish in the pens prior to the collapse, according to Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian-owned aquaculture company with several locations in Puget Sound. Cooke owns the fish farm. The farmed salmon were being held at its facility in Deepwater Bay near Cypress Island.


In addition to the 20,000 Atlantic salmon caught by Lummi Nation fishermen in the vicinity of Cyprus Island, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is reporting catches by sports anglers of the salmon as far away as Neah Bay on the Washington Coast, and Port Alberni on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, as well as south to Seattle and north to the U.S. border with Canada.


The Washington state departments of Natural Resources, WDFW and Ecology, along with the Office of the Governor and the state Emergency Management Division, formed an Incident Command structure to respond to the escape of the Atlantic salmon.


According to an NRD update, 142,176 of the salmon had been recovered by Cooke from the collapsed pens as of Wednesday, August 31 and the site is no cleared of fish (  Cooke has also removed four nets and one walkway from the collapsed facility.


Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the release of the fish into Puget Sound created an emergency situation:


“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 in a news release. “I have directed the Department of Ecology to put a hold on any new permits for net pens until a thorough investigation of this incident is completed. Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again.”


“I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters,” he continued.


On Friday, August 24, the Wild Fish Conservancy sent a 60-day notice to Cooke notifying the company that it intends to file a citizen suit under section 505 of the federal Clean Water Act, saying that the near-complete failure of the net pen facility is resulting in discharges of farmed Atlantic salmon, dead fish carcasses and debris, among other pollutants (


“These discharges represent blatantly negligent violations of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits under which Cooke Aquaculture’s Atlantic salmon net pens currently operate,” the Conservancy said in a press release.


The Conservancy said it is “deeply disheartened by Cooke Aquaculture’s glaring negligence, negligence which has led to an environmental disaster of epic proportion.” It said the salmons’ escape represents a threat to already imperiled wild fish populations, mammals and the “fragile Puget Sound ecosystem.”


“The escapement of Atlantic salmon poses threats of competition to native juvenile and adult salmon and steelhead,” said the Conservancy’s fisheries scientist Dr. Nick Gayeski. “The escaped fish still need to feed and thus are likely to compete with native juvenile Pacific salmon and steelhead, including preying on them. Like Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon spawn in the fall. The escaped fish are capable of spawning and will begin entering Puget Sound rivers to attempt to spawn. Whether the escaped fish succeed in producing offspring or not, they will compete on the spawning grounds with native salmon, including endangered Puget Sound Chinook, posing a threat to the spawning success of native salmon.”


"This dangerous and reckless industry not only threatens the recovery of our native salmon and orca populations, it threatens the health of Puget Sound and the Northwest's cultural identity. This disaster needs to be a wake-up call for the public to get involved, and to demand a halt to the expansion of the Atlantic salmon net pen industry into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”


Cooke said in an August 21 statement that “Exceptionally high tides and currents caused damage to a salmon farm that has been in operation near Cypress Island for approximately 30 years,” estimating at the time that several thousand fish had escaped the pen structure.


“It appears that many fish are still contained within the nets. It will not be possible to confirm exact numbers of fish losses until harvesting is completed and an inventory of fish in the pens has been conducted,” Cooke continued (


However, the Conservancy claims in its letter to the company and in a news release that tides were what can normally be expected this time of year and that the structure had endured higher tides during each of the months prior to the failure.


In its first year as owners of its Washington fish farms, “Cooke Aquaculture Pacific identified areas for investment to bring the facilities up to Cooke’s global standard,” Cooke said in its statement. “As part of that process, we applied for permits to allow us to strengthen and update the Cypress site even before the existing fish were harvested out. We will work with the relevant authorities to make sure we can employ the best knowledge, technology and the expertise of our global experts as we rebuild the farm.”


Last year Cooke purchased five salmon farms in Washington and it wants to build 14 more floating circular net pens about 1-1/2 miles offshore of Port Angeles in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, moving its current operations from the Port Angeles harbor and increasing production by 20 percent. That project is in the permitting phase, but now has come to a standstill due to Inslee’s moratorium on permitting aquaculture projects until the state completes a review of the incident at Cyprus Island.


Washington has the largest marine aquaculture industry in the U.S. producing about 17 million pounds of Atlantic salmon each year, according to the state.


The Incident Command structure includes the three state agencies in collaboration with local tribes and Cooke. The goal is to manage the response efficiently and to work with the tribes and Cooke to contain the escaped salmon as soon as possible.


WDFW is asking anglers to report their catches of Atlantic salmon so that it can track how far the fish have dispersed.


Anglers may only fish for Atlantic salmon in marine waters that are already open to fishing for Pacific salmon. Anglers also must stop fishing for Atlantic salmon once they've caught their daily limit of Pacific salmon. There is no size or catch limit on Atlantic salmon.


Anglers may also fish for Atlantic salmon in freshwater areas open to fishing for trout and Pacific salmon. Anglers should check the state’s 2017-18 Sport Fishing Rules Pamphlet for information on rivers that are open to salmon or trout fishing. Anglers also must stop fishing for Atlantic salmon once they've caught their daily limit of trout or Pacific salmon.


Catch reports to WDFW can be made online at


For more information go to WDNR’s webpage “Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Pen Break” at


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