ELLSWORTH — While the sky definitely was falling in parts of Texas and Louisiana last month, journalistic claims of an “environmental nightmare” from an Atlantic salmon escape from a fish farm in Washington State just days before Hurricane Harvey unloaded may be all wet.
Over the weekend of Aug, 19 to 21, thousands of Atlantic salmon escaped from a Cooke Aquaculture Co. fish farm off Cypress Island in Washington state’s Puget Sound after net pens holding some 305,000 eight- to ten pound fish collapsed.
Widespread media accounts reported that as many as 300,000 Atlantic salmon were loose in Puget Sound. A National Public Radio account described the event as an “environmental nightmare.” A conservation group, the Wild Fish Conservancy, gave Cooke notice that it would file a citizen lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife encouraged anglers to go out and catch all the Atlantic salmon they could find.
By last week, though, the magnitude of the “nightmare” seemed considerable less obvious. On Thursday, the Washington DFW reported that a Cooke salvage crew had already recovered more than 142,000 fish and three of the farm’s damaged nets. A fourth net was secure, awaiting removal when strong tides in the area abated sufficiently for divers to inspect the situation. Work crews had removed twisted sections of the steel framework that had supported the nets.
Cooke is using divers to work on the Cypress Island site. Concern for their safety slows their work.
“Salvage operations are ongoing,” Sebastian Belle, Executive Director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said last week. “With a 4-knot current they have to be very careful. It’s dangerous.”
What’s happening in Puget sound could have an impact in Maine. Or not.
According to Belle, Cooke currently has permits for 27 Atlantic salmon farms in Maine waters. Of those, he said, one-third are allowed to lie fallow and empty of fish each year.
On average, Belle said, Cooke raises some 4.5 million Atlantic salmon in its Maine fish pens each year. Roughly half that population consists of hatchery-raised smolt spending their first year in salt water and half are adult fish that will be harvested at the end of their second year in the ocean.
The risk that any of those fish escaped into wild, though, is low.
“So far, no concerns here, as containment audits are part of doing business” John Lewis, a biologist and lead aquaculture person at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said last week. Those audits are part of an extensive containment management protocol imposed by DMR and conducted on a regular basis by and independent third-party monitor.
“Containment has been good,” Lewis said, with “the last reportable escape was [in] 2003 with about 2,000 800-gram [28-ounce] fish coming through a hole at Birch Point” in Cobscook Bay.
Chuck Brown, communications manager for Cooke, said last week that the company purchased the Cypress Island fish farm about a year ago. Soon after the transaction was complete it filed an application with Washington State regulators to replace the existing fish pen structures with “polar circle” cages similar to those it uses in Maine.
According to Belle, the fish pens were in extremely poor condition when Cooke purchased the farm and may have been the same structures installed when the Cypress Island site received a permit to raise Atlantic salmon sometime during the 1980s.
“We had filed a permit application in February to upgrade the Cypress Island No. 2 farm site and bring it up to our global standards,” Brown said last week. “Unfortunately, the permitting process was not completed before this incident occurred.”
According to Lewis, there are substantial differences between the net pen cages used in Maine that the pens that broke apart in Puget Sound.
“Three things I note here,” Lewis said. “The steel cage system had recently been purchased by Cooke — it had not been installed and maintained by them.
“The system that broke apart was a contiguous steel cage system, not individual polar circles such as that used in Maine for about the last 10 years.
“The steel cage system responds to swells and currents as a single unit, whereas the polar circles act more independently to ride waves and current, essentially creating a more pliable and forgiving structure.”
However much responsibility Cooke may bear for the catastrophic failure of its fish pens, there is still a question of what impact the release of perhaps 100,000 or more Atlantic salmon might have on the ecosystem of Puget Sound. The most likely answer, though less than definitive, is less alarming than the headlines might suggest.
The escape of Atlantic salmon in Washington State put non-indigenous fish — essentially an invasive species — into Pacific salmon habitat. As frightening as that might sound, according to the Washington DFW, the impact of Atlantic salmon in Pacific waters has been minimal.
According to the agency’s web site, “numerous attempts have been made in the 20th century by agencies on the Pacific coast to introduce and establish Atlantic salmon” into the Pacific ecosystem. “The most recent attempt by [the agency] was in 1981 when attempted introductions were made via the release of cultured Atlantic salmon smolts. No adult Atlantic salmon adults returned (to local spawning rivers) as a result of the releases.”
Despite the survival of a handful of escaped Atlantic salmon in Canadian streams in the late 1990s, the department concludes that “evidence indicates that Atlantic salmon aquaculture poses low-risk to native salmon and non-salmon species” in Pacific Northwest waters.
According to Belle, who worked as a fisheries biologist in Alaska before coming to Maine, Pacific salmon will generally be able to outcompete escaped farm-raised fish for food and habitat in the wild.
“Pacific salmon, by and large, are more aggressive, more rough and tumble,” he said. “Atlantic salmon are pussycats.”
The risk to wild fish is even less in Maine,” Lewis said, where “salmon farming uses fish from both the Penobscot and St. John strains: Atlantic salmon in Atlantic salmon habitat using local genetic material.”