The Eclipsing Myth of ‘Safe’ Aquaculture

Salmon net pens, while appearing serene, are ticking ecological time bombs. An escapement event in Puget Sound has shown there is no longer any reason why the myth of ‘safe’ finfish aquaculture should be believed. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

This week, as the nation looked towards the sky to the long-awaited eclipse, fish farmers looked away from the sea and environmental calamity ensued. An event long feared and forewarned occurred in Puget Sound at Cooke Aquaculture’s fish farm near Cypress Island: a net pen broke and released hundreds of thousands of 10-pound, farmed, non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.

Cooke’s tale is that high tides blamed on the eclipse caused the release of 5,000 fish. Their lies were shut down by the data: higher tides occurred every month this year and the current was not exceptionally strong. As more and more of the invasive fish are turning up, it has become clear that Cooke downplayed the numbers of released fish a huge amount. How can the public believe anything they say? How can the State or the Federal government believe anything they write in a permit application or say to an agency official? The simple answer is: they cannot.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is urging the public to attempt to clean up Cooke’s mess by catching as many of these invaders as they can. In the aftermath, it will be the native salmon who pay the long-term price. The number of released invasive salmon is unknown, but the results could be disastrous for our vulnerable Pacific salmon, the fishermen that rely on them, and the tribes who have fought to sustain the runs that have historical and cultural significance.

While this event is saddening, it is not surprising. These risky net pen operations have long been known, criticized and challenged. Fish farms threaten the economy, the environment, and salmon biodiversity. The impacts of finfish net pen farming to our critically important native salmon stocks are well known, including the spread of disease, genetic contamination, and (as we may soon learn), the potential reestablishment of perpetual invasive populations that compete with native stocks.

Escapement is widely considered the biggest danger of these operations and can lead to the devastation of native populations. This escapement event threatens our native salmon with predation and competition. The farmed fish, which are larger than typical Atlantic salmon, will prey on juvenile native salmon and compete for their habitat and food. True, there are no previously documented successful crossbreeding’s between Atlantic and Pacific salmon. But, the destruction of the genetic pool this could cause is enough of a threat that, as Washington scientists have said, “we don’t want to test the theory”.

Cooke Aquaculture has claimed that the released fish were not diseased and have downplayed the significance of this event. Would we expect anything else coming from a company with expansion on their mind? IFR has been saying it for years and we’ll say it again: net pen aquaculture is too risky. Keep it out of the Pacific!

This escapement event has renewed attention on Cooke’s expansion plans for a new, larger site in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The site would sit at the mouth of Puget Sound, a location wild salmon cannot avoid when coming inland or returning to sea. While arguing for this new site Cooke cited their “30-year track record of success”. Well, Cooke, time to reset the Accident Clock to ZERO.

These net pen operations cannot be trusted with the fate of our wild Pacific salmon. If a long-anticipated celestial event, or worse, normal conditions can lead to an equipment failure threatening ecological disaster, who knows what unexpected surprises lie ahead and what they might due to our fragile Pacific salmon runs. It’s a risk salmon fishermen and the people of the West Coast cannot afford to take. Keep it native, keep it wild, or keep it out of the ocean.

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