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For as long as the farmed Atlantic salmon industry has been spawning net-pen rearing sites along the coasts of British Columbia and Washington state, Alaska has been voicing concerns about the potential of mass escapes of Atlantic salmon into the Pacific Ocean ecosystem.
The core concern is that Atlantics might become established in Pacific salmon habitat.
There have been escapes of farmed Atlantic salmon, but the escape of as many as 263,000 Atlantic salmon in August from a Puget Sound site operated by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific is rightly being described as a “disaster.”
A Washington state investigation has taken Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to task for a lack of maintenence that appears to have caused the initial incident — and for vastly underreporting the size of the actual escape.
The Washington Department of Ecology on Jan. 30 fined the Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture $332,000 for violating the company’s water-quality permit prior to and during the August collapse of the net pen, according to the Seattle Times.
On Sunday, Washington state canceled a Cooke Aquaculture Pacific lease at the Cypress Island site where the net-pen failure occurred.
Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz wasn’t shy in assessing the issue.
"Cooke has flagrantly violated the terms of its lease at Cypress Island," Franz said in a statement quoted by The Associated Press. "The company's reckless disregard endangered the health of our waters and our people, and it will not be tolerated."
In addition to the fine and the lease cancellation, the Washington Legislature is mulling legislation to either phase out or immediately end the net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound.
It’s good to see Washington state taking the situation seriously and penalizing Cooke Aquaculture for the company’s actions and inactions in this mess — the ecologic consequences of which remain to be seen.
Atlantic salmon continued to be caught through early January. One source quoted by the Seattle Times noted that sport anglers had caught “at least” 200 Atlantic salmon between Dec. 16 and Jan. 3 in Washington state’s Skagit River, with some of those fish caught more that 65 miles up river.
Perhaps it’s already too late to prevent Atlantic salmon from gaining a fin hold in Pacific habitat.
We hope that’s not the case. And while Washington state might be late to fully considering the potential impacts of Atlantic salmon farming on its coastal waters and beyond, they appear to be paying full attention now.