Everyone’s Mad About Fugitive Salmon in the Pacific NorthwestBy
Thousands of Atlantic species get loose in Pacific Northwest
‘I wouldn’t eat ’em,’ scoffs longtime Puget Sound fisherman
In a giant refrigerated warehouse 90 miles north of Seattle, 43,500 Atlantic salmon were stacked in plastic crates, frozen pariahs in a kingdom where Pacific salmon rule.
For weeks, locals used nets to chase down the intruders, not to eat them or sell them, but to get them out of the water. Native fishermen who’ve worked Puget Sound for decades mocked them for looking different. Chefs and foodies refused to so much as lay a boning knife on them. Scientists, for their part, say they’re perfectly edible -- a good source of protein in a world where increasing numbers of people could use some. But nobody is listening.
The Atlantic salmon are fugitives, escapees from a fish farm. In mid-August, they began to bust out of net pens off the coast of Cypress Island, north of Seattle. To many in the Pacific Northwest, they’re ugly, diseased aliens with bad genes and a taste that’s not quite right.
For Cooke Aquaculture, owners of the net pens, the breakaway salmon have been a nightmare. The closely held company drew public outcry by initially blaming the solar eclipse for strong tides and currents that wrecked its facility. Data showed otherwise, and the company backtracked. The exact cause is under investigation.
Soon after the escape, Washington state regulators issued an unusual call for help by declaring open season on the fish. Commercial and amateur anglers hit the water, hauling in as many as possible before the fish could affect the hometown Pacific species, such as coho, chum and king.
Dana Wilson, a member of the Lummi Nation, was fishing in Bellingham Bay when he heard about the spill. He quickly made his way to the farm -- or what was left of it. The neat grid of platforms supporting nets in a tranquil bay had become a twisted mess of metal.
“It was crazy,” Wilson said. “There were fish jumping everywhere.”
Wilson said his biggest worry was the Atlantic salmon harming the spawning grounds of native species. Pacific stock have been the center of Lummi commerce for generations. The tribe declared a state of emergency and encouraged their members to go fishing.
Working almost around the clock, Wilson and other fishermen began tracking the salmon into coves and setting beach nets. As they drew their catch to shore, dozens of fish flopped wildly.
“They didn’t really have a salmon smell,” Wilson said. While many looked normal, others were deformed, their jaws “going two different directions,” he said. “I wouldn’t eat ’em.”
Within weeks, Wilson and other Lummi fishermen managed to catch about 391,000 pounds, which they put into cold storage in Bellingham, Washington, while they figured out what to do with it. By the end of September, they were in talks to sell it back to Cooke.
While tribal and state officials looked on, representatives for Cooke painstakingly counted the iced Atlantic salmon so they knew how much to offer.
Cooke doesn’t comment on sale negotiations, said Nell Halse, a spokeswoman. In addition to buying back fish, Cooke hired a salvage company to clean up the site and offered to help study the environmental impact, Halse said.
The Lummi’s catch was by far the biggest haul of any group. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife had reports of people snaring fewer than 2,000 fish, some of them near Tacoma in the Puyallup River, 100 miles away. Based on data that Cooke provided to the state, thousands of Atlantic salmon still swim free.
The magnitude of the spill and the official response quickly inflamed passions in a region that takes pride in its environmentalism. Even Tom Douglas, a local celebrity chef and restaurateur, weighed in, calling the spill “tragic” and rebuffing reporters’ requests to give people tips on how to prepare the farmed fish.
Flotilla of Kayaktivists
Within days, Governor Jay Inslee put on hold all new permits for net pens, jeopardizing a controversial facility that Cooke had planned near Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula. Local environmental activists, who’d long opposed fish farming in Puget Sound, seized the moment.
On Sept. 16, a hazy Saturday on Bainbridge Island, a ragtag flotilla of power boats, a yacht and about three dozen self-anointed “kayaktivists” waved anti-farm signs while film crews and photographers chronicled their protest. Ferry boats from Seattle glided by in the distance.
For Kurt Beardslee, the executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest, which organized the protest, raising fish in tight quarters creates breeding grounds for disease and fouls the ocean.
Not all fish-farming is bad, Beardslee said. His organization would prefer if it were done on land, where there’s less risk to wild fish.
But that’s expensive, said Ray Hilborn, a professor in the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences. With net pens, he said, the water flows through. Farming fish on land requires pumping.
As for the environment, “the most likely result of this is nothing,” Hilborn said. “There have been a lot of similar-sized escapements in the past. They haven’t resulted in Atlantic salmon getting established in our rivers and streams.”
From 1990 to 2001, about a million farmed Atlantic salmon escaped in Puget Sound and British Columbia, according to an analysis by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The fish didn’t do well in the wild.
The Atlantic variety was bred to be docile and fatten quickly on pellets, which makes them a cost-effective source of protein, said Mike Rust, a Seattle-based science adviser for NOAA’s office of aquaculture. But that also makes them ill-equipped to survive in Puget Sound, where sea lions, seals and orcas hunt.
“Visualize a milk cow on the Serengeti,” Rust said.
For researchers like Rust, the bigger issue is how to meet the world’s demand for seafood when the population is projected to increase 30 percent by 2050.
About 90 percent of the world’s fishing grounds are being harvested at or beyond their sustainable limits, according to the United Nations. At the same time, production of fish caught in oceans, rivers and lakes has been relatively static since the 1980s. Most of the growth in supply has come from aquaculture, which now produces more than half of the seafood people eat around the world. In the U.S., most farmed fish is imported.
“It’s not a choice of whether aquaculture happens,” Rust said, “but rather whether it’s done overseas.”
Washington is the only state on the West Coast that farms salmon. Cooke entered the market last year when it bought Icicle Seafoods from Paine Schwartz Partners, a private equity firm. Cooke boasts about $2 billion a year in revenue and has about 5,000 employees.
Cooke also operates on the East Coast, as well as in Scotland, Canada and Chile. Company facilities in Maine supplied fish for President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Cooke’s Halse said fish farming has a potentially bright future in Washington state, but the recent fiasco has clearly been a setback.
Arguments in favor of aquaculture are little comfort to Wilson, the Lummi fisherman. Wild salmon, he said, nourish the environment. They feed marine mammals on their way out to sea and again on their way back to spawn in rivers. Wilson said he worried that damage has already been done.
“That’s the part that bothers me,” he said. “What’s going to be available for my grandson to fish?”