How Fishermen Are Faring After Salmon Spill


December 28, 2017

How Fishermen Are Faring In Washington Months After Salmon Spill

Last summer, more than 100,000 farmed Atlantic salmon spilled into Puget Sound, threatening the wild salmon population. Local fishermen scrambled to catch them. NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with fisherman Riley Starks about what's happened since.

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This week we're checking back in with people we met on the program during 2017. Over the summer, more than a hundred thousand Atlantic salmon escaped from an ocean farm in Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state. Local fishermen feared a complete disruption of the ecosystem. Back in August, I spoke with one of those fishermen, Riley Starks, who was on a hunt for the fugitive salmon.

RILEY STARKS: Fishermen love to fish, and so there is a certain sort of joy in it. But it's like a Fellini movie. There's the overshadowing sort of despair, you know, that underlies it.

SHAPIRO: And Riley Starks is back with us now once again. Welcome to the program.

STARKS: Thank you, Ari - nice to be back.

SHAPIRO: Did you catch all the fish?

STARKS: We did not catch all the fish. We caught - I'm going to say about a third of the fish that escaped.

SHAPIRO: So where'd the other two-thirds go?

STARKS: Well, one-third were scooped up by Cooke themselves.

SHAPIRO: Cooke is the company that owned the salmon farm.

STARKS: That's right. And then the other third is still at large.

SHAPIRO: Is there any new information about why and how these salmon escaped?

STARKS: There is not. They're doing a huge investigation to figure out exactly what happened, but nobody can really pinpoint the cause.

SHAPIRO: Who's doing the investigation, the state?

STARKS: The state is doing it, yes. So finally - they for years have relied on self-reporting by the company to let them know if anything was going wrong, but now they've got a systematic inspection of every single net pen. And the good news on that is the net pens off of Port Angeles were found to be so defective that they've canceled the lease.

SHAPIRO: So real consequences for the salmon farming industry in Washington state.

STARKS: Yep. That was really - it was very brave. The head of the DNR stepped up, and their lease is canceled.

SHAPIRO: We should say that while you're characterizing this as brave and a good development, there are going to be others who will characterize it as an economic hit for the state, maybe sacrificing jobs. But as somebody whose livelihood is tied to the native wild salmon population, I'm sure it's a huge relief to you that the farmed salmon are not going to be out there in the ocean.

STARKS: You know, Ari, it's not an either-or situation. The wild salmon here is not something that we can afford to lose, period. I think Jay Julius, the chairman of The Lummi Nation, put it best that wild salmon are - they're at a tipping point right now, and it won't take much to push them over the edge.

SHAPIRO: The Lummi Nation is the local American Indian tribe that's played a huge role in the cleanup and recovery from the salmon spill.

STARKS: Absolutely. They stood up at the very beginning and really did an amazing job.

SHAPIRO: So there are still tens of thousands of fish that burst free from this pen somewhere out there. Is there any information about how much damage they actually have caused and whether the most dire predictions have come to pass?

STARKS: There really isn't, mostly because there hasn't been very much looking. Cooke at a hearing last month said, oh, they're mostly dead; they've starved to death. And it wasn't two weeks later that a few tribal fishermen in the Skagit got more farmed Atlantics than they did wild salmon.

SHAPIRO: You went out there doing what you do for a living, fishing, and caught tens of thousands of these fish that had escaped from the pen. Were you able to make the kind of money doing that that you make when you're catching fish to sell for people to eat?

STARKS: No, not at all. We - personally, our company has never been paid by Cooke or anybody else. Mostly what we did was because we felt it was the right thing to do. But we got caught in the middle there (laughter).

SHAPIRO: How much did that cost you, more or less?

STARKS: I'm going to say it cost us about $40,000.

SHAPIRO: Wow, that's a real chunk of change.

STARKS: We're a pretty small company, so it is.

SHAPIRO: Riley Starks is a fisherman who works off the coast of Washington state. Thanks for talking to us again, and happy new year.

STARKS: Thank you, Ari. Happy new year to you.

SHAPIRO: And we reached out to Cooke Aquaculture. In a statement, the company said in part that the farmed salmon are not eating in the wild and would soon die of starvation. Additionally, Cooke says it has provided almost $1.5 million to fishermen who helped recover the fish. And the company pledges to monitor the situation in the long term. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.