Is the hysteria over accidental farmed salmon releases founded in science?

Old Man of the Ski

SALMON WARS! How Fish Farming has become a Lightning Rod in the Pacific Northwest

Washington State Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz is celebrating the fact that Cooke Aquaculture has agreed to pay a $332,000 fine to the Washington Department of Ecology as a result of an accidental release of tens of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. Cooke agreed to pay the fine with the understanding that the bulk of the money would be used to enhance northwest fisheries.

Like sharks smelling blood in the water, Franz’s supporters posted comments on her Facebook page demanding stiffer penalties, higher fines, and an immediate ban on aquaculture operations in Washington state.  Sample comments include,

It’s time to force Cooke Aquaculture out of Port Angeles” 

“Not remotely enough! The company should be removed from ALL OUR WATERS!! NOW!!” 

“Cancel all farmed fish pen leases now!”  

“I would like to see them fined more and gone from our waters!”

Aquaculture operators have been farming Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest since 1971. The Canadian fish farming industry has grown to nearly ten times the size of Washington’s. Government oversight, strict regulations, and increasingly stiff financial penalties have not prevented numerous accidental releases from aquaculture operations on both sides of the border. Over the past 40 years, Canadian and U.S. aquaculture businesses have been responsible for the escape of nearly a million Atlantic salmon into the Pacific ocean.

Statement from Cooke Aquaculture:

“Cooke Aquaculture Pacific was not interested in going through the hearing, putting additional stress on our employees, and reliving the regretful events of August 2017. When presented with the opportunity to dedicate 80% of the penalty ($265,600 USD) to a supplemental environmental project, Cooke made the decision to not litigate the penalty amount, and instead dedicate its resources to a project that will directly result in fisheries enhancement in the North Puget Sound region. Cooke is actively working on identifying such a project and partners in enhancing fisheries in North Puget Sound.”

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Ironically, planned releases of Atlantic salmon were once considered a good idea.  Federal authorities working with WDFW attempted to release Atlantic salmon into northwest waters back in 1981.  All of the fish died and the project was scrapped.

Image result for life will find a wayWhile early research indicated that Atlantic salmon would not survive in cold Pacific waters in the wild, that assumption has since been proven wrong.  Marine biologists have become increasingly concerned that surviving Atlantic salmon escaping from fish farm pens could potentially out compete native stocks and/or hybridize with Pacific salmon.   By 2003, Canadian authorities had already identified wild Atlantic salmon populations in coastal waters from Vancouver Island all the way up to Alaska.  Free ranging Atlantic salmon were also identified in 81 streams and rivers in British Columbia.

Obviously, while Cooke’s 2017 accidental release of Atlantic salmon is regrettable and a violation of state regulations, the cat, so to speak, has been out of the bag for a long time.

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