THE NEW YORKER
Washington State’s Great Salmon Spill and the Environmental Perils of Fish Farming
Web-editor's Note: The original article has two sensational images showing Lummi Nation fishermen catching hundreds of the escaped farmed salmon at one time by netting in the "right" place. Worth seeing - and hopefully someone from Canada's DFO on the ATLANTIC COAST is interviewing them on the techniques, skills and insights that allowed the amazingly successful removal of escapees from these marine waters.
By E. Tammy Kim
September 13, 2017
Just after the thrill of the total solar eclipse, a troubling nature story emerged from northwestern Washington State. On August 22nd, Cooke Aquaculture, a multibillion-dollar seafood company, reported that, three days earlier, extreme tides coinciding with the eclipse had torn apart its enormous salmon farm off Cypress Island, a teal idyll near the college town of Bellingham. More than three hundred thousand non-native Atlantic salmon, housed in a steel underwater pen, were at risk of escape. Tens of thousands of the fish had already spilled into Puget Sound, and some had begun to instinctively swim upstream, toward the mouths of local rivers, as if to spawn.
The eclipse, it turned out, had nothing to do with the accident, and Cooke soon abandoned it as an explanation. Within twenty-four hours of the pen’s collapse, the company notified “key personnel,” pursuant to a state-approved Fish Escape Prevention Plan. But it was the weekend, and Cooke employees only had office numbers on file. Several days passed before the company and state natural-resources officials hired a salvage team, set up a rapid-response center, and began encouraging recreational fishers to catch as many Atlantic salmon as possible. By then, a member of the Lummi Nation, for whom Pacific salmon are sacrosanct, had caught one of the stray Atlantics in Bellingham Bay. He called tribal elders with the news, triggering a disaster declaration on the part of the tribe. Lummi fishermen promptly took their boats to the Cooke aquaculture site and cast their nets, seining hundreds of disoriented escapees.
Jay Julius, a member of the Lummi tribal council and a commercial fisherman, had two boats on the scene at Cypress Island. For more than a week, he neglected his usual routes to net gleaming tons of Atlantic salmon and put them in cold storage. (Each adult weighs about ten pounds.) There was a chance that Julius and other Lummi fishers would be able to sell their haul back to Cooke, but it wasn’t about money, he told me. He had always opposed the thirty-year-old farm, which he saw as a threat to native king, silver, and chum salmon. He worried that the escaped Atlantics would spread disease, or compete for food or breeding grounds, undermining tribal efforts to rebuild wild stocks. He texted me a photo of a recent catch—a shiny Atlantic salmon whose mouth was bent downward, perpendicular to its head. “We don’t understand why anyone would want to eat these,” he said. “Their lips are folded over, they stink, they’re awful.”
Cooke operates in-ocean farms around the world, but its four locations in Washington are the only such facilities in the Western United States. Open-pen fish farms—those located at sea, rather than in isolated facilities on land—are illegal in Oregon, California, and Alaska. In waters under federal control, such as the Gulf of Mexico, steel cages of the kind used by Cooke are considered old-fashioned, Laura Hoberecht, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told me. So, too, she said, is the farming of species outside their natal territory—Atlantic salmon being the exception. (Cooke also operates facilities in British Columbia, where Atlantic-salmon aquaculture is common. Pacific salmon do not do well in farms.) For now, Washington has put a hold on additional net-pen applications, all of which were submitted by Cooke; conservationists have also called for a halt to permits for shellfish aquaculture.
Cooke took over the Cypress Island farm in 2016, after merging with another seafood company, and knew that the steel pens holding millions of Atlantic salmon there were in bad shape. In February of this year, it submitted to state authorities an application for “replacement and reorientation” of the 1.8-acre facility. The document stated that the sixteen-year-old pen system was “nearing the end of serviceable life,” that the metal hinge joints were “showing excess signs of wear,” and that “corrosion on the metal walkway grating and substructures [was] beginning to accelerate.” Cooke planned to make repairs in September, after processing the existing stock of adults. “We thought it was secure, and these fish were due to be harvested very soon,” Chuck Brown, a Cooke spokesman, told me. “We were planning to go ahead with that upgrade work.”
In spite of the wording of the February application, none of the state or federal agencies supervising the aquaculture site seems to have been overly concerned. Cooke was not asked to fix or replace the farm ahead of schedule—not even in late July, a month before the collapse, when the company staged an emergency repair to stabilize the facility. A photo of that intervention, published in a marine company’s newsletter, shows the metal planks of the pen in jagged chaos. Investigators must now determine how far the net pen was dragged from its usual position. Brown acknowledged that “some of the site’s moorings came loose, and the site moved and drifted,” requiring crew to add “extra anchor lines.” Still, he said, the collapse of the pen was unforeseeable: workers on the scene in August reported conditions that were “out of the ordinary and severe.”
Had the state inspected the site in the spring, taking note of Cooke’s application to repair and replace, the spill might have been averted. But such inspections are not required. According to Cori Simmons, of the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the state’s five thousand private aquatic leases are mostly self-regulating: lessees monitor pollutant levels and the condition of their equipment. Cooke pays the state twenty-five thousand dollars a year to rent the site of the collapsed pen, plus a “production” fee based on the yield of fish. The current harvest was valued at ten million dollars.
At last count, Cooke’s own response team had retrieved a hundred and forty-six thousand of the three hundred thousand escaped fish; Lummi citizens had caught nearly fifty thousand, but had not yet reached a deal to sell the salmon back to Cooke. Representatives of the corporation and state and federal agencies called the spill a “serious situation,” expressing concern for a long list of endangered species, but predicted that no lasting damage would be done. Atlantic salmon, while self-evidently strangers to the Pacific, are unlikely to colonize rivers or prey on native species, they say. Mike Rust, at noaa Fisheries, told me that “when you look at the scientific literature, even when Atlantics have been force-mated, they don’t reproduce very well at all with Pacifics. When you look at them side by side, in terms of competition for space, Pacifics beat out Atlantics every time.” Ron Warren, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, agreed, but acknowledged that the fish are “dispersing.” “As Pacific salmon come into spawning areas, it’s likely the Atlantics will come with them,” he said.
Atlantic salmon have escaped from farms before, but never on this scale. Investigators and scientists are beginning to track the location of the Cooke fish, and they are analyzing the stomach contents of those captured to gauge the threat they pose to native species. It will take months, or years, to measure the impact of the spill. But area tribes, who have treaty fishing rights and traditions built around local salmon, point beyond scientific concerns. “It’s hard to put into words to someone who is not connected to the water like we are, as a community and a people, and have been for thousands of years,” Julius, the Lummi fisherman, told me. “I’m not a biologist, but I know these don’t belong in the water.”
E. Tammy Kim is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and the co-editor of “Punk Ethnography: Artists & Scholars Listen to Sublime Frequencies.”
CUTLINE FOR FIRST IMAGE
Lummi Nation fishermen work to capture Atlantic salmon that escaped an aquaculture pen near Cypress Island, in Washington State.Photograph by Brandon Sawaya / SOULCRAFT ALLSTARS