Open water fish pens have long been criticized by conservation activists as facilities that spread disease and can have catastrophic consequences on native fish populations.
In August, one of these feared events occurred, when hundreds of thousands of invasive Atlantic salmon escaped from collapsed fish pens near Cypress Island off the coast in northwest Washington state.
The fish escaped from a dilapidated facility owned by the large fish farm company Cooke Aquaculture.
After initially blaming the collapse on the solar eclipse, Cooke Aquaculture later recanted after readings showed the tides were not as intense as expected.
Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest Director Kurt Beardslee said it came out that Cooke Aquaculture had made emergency repairs to its aging facility over the summer.
The company, however, did not remove the fish and replace the facility.
“That’s where the gamble went too far, they gambled,” Beardslee said. “Instead of removing (the fish) and being conservative, the pens failed, and that’s negligence.”
Consequently, Beardslee’s organization filed a lawsuit against Cooke Aquaculture under the Clean Water Act, saying each escaped fish represented an individual act of pollution.
The maximum that could be awarded under law is more than $50,000 per escaped fish.
Beardslee said if the fish had escaped due to a natural event, there would be no basis for the lawsuit, which alleges Cooke Aquaculture was negligent in their maintenance of the facilities.
“This was because the pens structurally were in such disrepair,” he said.
This isn’t the first time fish have escaped from these net pens.
The lawsuit states there were three major escape events in the 1990s, and a massive disease outbreak in 2012.
More concerning, Beardslee said was when state regulators showed up to investigate reports of an outbreak in 2012, they were turned away by the operators and barred from inspecting the facilities until the outbreak was over.
“There was not one ounce of analysis by the state because they couldn’t, the net pen industry wouldn’t allow them to,” Beadslee said.
Washington state law says state agencies should promote aquaculture, which effectively ties the hands of regulators when dealing with fish pens, Beardslee said.
This could change in the upcoming legislative session, as a bill is being written to bar new fish pen leases and prohibit existing ones from being renewed. This would essentially end fish pens within a decade.
Beyond the possibility of large numbers of non-native fish escaping into Puget Sound, which may compete with an already dwindling population of Pacific salmon for food and spawning grounds, conservationists say Atlantic salmon held in open water pens are incubators for disease and parasites.
When the pen salmon are treated for disease, it is through feed spread in the pens. While the nets containing the salmon are tight enough to keep in adult Atlantic salmon, the holes are large enough to also allow juvenile native salmon and other species in to eat the food.
This becomes a problem when the pen salmon are being treated for diseases such as yellow mouth, since state law bans salmon from being eaten for a month after treatment.
If native fish swim in, which is common, and eat the food, there is no indication to local fishers who might catch the fish that they shouldn’t eat it, Beardslee said.
Disease is amplified in the nets, too.
In the wild, sick salmon are picked off by predators or die on their own. In confinement, these fish survive and pass on the diseases to other fish in the pens, which in turn spreads contamination to native fish passing by.
Beardslee said since investigators were not allowed into the pens in 2012 to study the effects of that five-month outbreak, the scope of the effects are unknown.
“This is a disaster,” he said. “It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it happens, its effects could be enormous.”
There are currently eight open water fish pens in Washington state water. This makes the state an outlier; Alaska, Oregon and California have all banned open water pens.
There are groups that support fish pen farms in Washington. Dan Swecker is a former state senator, former fish pen owner and a representative of the industry group Washington Fish Growers Association.
He said over the last decade, the industry has made improvements in preventing disease, such as raising the fish in fresh-water quarantine facilities for longer periods of time before moving them out to sea.
The fish are vaccinated more thoroughly and antibiotics aren’t needed as frequently thanks to these improvements, he said.
He took issue with claims that Atlantic salmon compete with native species, saying when they do escape, non-native salmon often stick around their pens, where they expect food.
Despite objections from conservationists, Cooke Aquaculture recently announced its intention to create a new facility farther out in the Straits of Juan de Fuca.
The company is branding it as an expansion of its current operation while conservationists say it is a new project that will have a larger footprint, Beardslee said.
Clallam County indefinitely postponed a hearing on the facility.
In response to this, the Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Students for the Salish Sea and Protectors of the Salish Sea held a hearing on Nov. 8 in Port Angeles.
Stephanie Hillman, a representative of the Sierra Club, said around 100 people showed up, but no representatives from either Cooke Aquaculture or Clallum County spoke.
Of the roughly 30 people who testified at the meeting, all were opposed to the new fish pens.
“We don’t want this, we’re concerned enough with the health of Puget Sound,” Hillman said.
The Sierra Club is also worried about disease and competition with native Pacific salmon, she said.
Atlantic salmon taking up resources and competing for spawning grounds could mean fewer native salmon.
Not only does this cause negative effects for Washington tribes and recreational and commercial fishermen, but it also could lead to a decline in native salmon which resident killer whale pods eat.
As documented in a Bothell Reporter story from 2016, salmon runs have been declining in Lake Washington for the past four decades.
This is due to a variety of factors, including pollution of spawning grounds, the building out of the lake’s shoreline and destruction of streamline habitat in channels like the Sammamish River slough.
In 1983, there were an estimated 550 naturally-spawning Chinook salmon in the region, which reached a low of 33 salmon in 1996 and again in 2011.
The population again nose-dived between 2014 and 2015, when a combined number of natural and hatchery salmon accounted for a population of nearly 1,600 Chinook salmon in 2015.
The following year, there were less than 500 in the area.
Conservationists say the fish pens operated by Cooke Aquaculture contribute to an inhospitable climate for native fish.
Cooke Aquaculture had not returned a request for comment at the time of publication.