Six weeks ago today a fish farm holding 305,000 Atlantic salmon — a farm the owners and state knew was aging and worn — collapsed in Deepwater Bay near Cypress Island, allowing thousands of the fish to swim into surrounding waters.
With about 160,000 of the fish leaving their nets, the incident is the second-largest release of Atlantic salmon in the state’s history, this time from a site in Skagit County where the fish have been commercially raised for 40 years.
While state agencies continue to investigate the cause of the collapse and the release of those nonnative fish, the incident has raised concerns about threats to native Pacific salmon.
Atlantic salmon are native to the Atlantic Ocean and extinct in the U.S. except in the Gulf of Maine, where it is a federally protected endangered species. In Washington, Cooke Aquaculture is the only company that raises Atlantic salmon in fish farms, or net pens.
The farm that collapsed is one of eight run by Cooke and one of four of those in Skagit County.
Cooke has yet to determine the costs of losing thousands of about 10-pound, nearly market-ready fish and of hiring contractors to dismantle the collapsed farm and to dive into the bay to recover sunken pieces of equipment.
Cooke will be able to make no money off the fish that were at the farm — either off those that left the farm or those that remained but were not able to be harvested for market after being without food for several days.
The company may also face fines for the incident.
Three state agencies responsible for regulating commercial fish farms are investigating the collapse.
The agencies — the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Department of Ecology — expect to complete the investigation in December, Natural Resources spokesman Dennis Clark said.
Cooke Aquaculture holds a water quality permit for each of its farms through Ecology, leases space on the water from Natural Resources, and maintains a fish release prevention and response plan in accordance with Fish & Wildlife rules.
The water quality permits consider Atlantic salmon a pollutant if released. According to a Sept. 15 document, Ecology has determined that the release of fish following the collapse was a violation of the permit for that farm.
“We’re investigating and collecting evidence to determine really the extent of the water quality permit violations that have occurred and if there has been any negligence that caused this to happen,” Ecology spokeswoman Jessica Payne said.
She said Ecology could fine Cooke up to $10,000 per day for violations.
The fish release prevention and response plan requires Cooke to notify Fish & Wildlife and Ecology within 24 hours of a release. State documents suggest the company met that requirement.
As for Cooke’s lease, Natural Resources sent the company a notice of default Aug. 25 because the damaged farm remaining in the water made the company out of compliance with the terms of the lease, according to the letter.
Agency spokeswoman Kristin Swenddal said when the damaged structure was removed from the water, the company went back in compliance with its lease and the lease remains in effect.
Meanwhile, all permits Cooke has pending for upgrades to or relocations of its fish farms are on hold.
That includes Cooke’s application to replace the middle of its three fish farms near Cypress Island — the very one that collapsed.
That application shows that the company and at least one state agency knew the farm was in disrepair before the metal frame crumpled, nets tore and fish swam out.
”Due for replacement”
Cooke submitted an application to Natural Resources in February seeking to replace the fish farm, which it said was in worn condition and “due for complete replacement.”
“The existing steel net pen structure has been in service for approximately 16 years ... Corrosion on the metal walkway grating and substructures is beginning to accelerate. The metal hinge joints in some areas are showing signs of excess wear,” the application states.
Natural Resources staff said the state agency received the application, but it had not been processed by the time the farm collapsed.
“We had applied to upgrade our equipment and position the site more strategically to withstand tides, currents and other marine and weather conditions,” Cooke spokesman Chuck Brown said. “We had submitted permit applications for this work but could not get it done before this incident.”
He said Cooke planned to begin taking apart the facility in September, after harvesting the Atlantic salmon the company inherited when it purchased the farm, along with the other seven in the state, in May 2016.
The collapsed fish farm and its two neighboring facilities near Cypress Island were fully replaced in 1999, according to state documents. Nets at the facility were replaced in 2016.
Alan Cook, vice president of aquaculture for Icicle Seafoods, which sold the Cypress Island fish farms to Cooke, told the Skagit Valley Herald in 2015 that the company invested $1 million a year in new nets to prevent Atlantic salmon from escaping.
“We have not had an escape in quite a few years ... We have a lot of money invested in our fish and we’re interested in keeping them contained,” he said in 2015.
The last release of Atlantic salmon in the state consisted of about 24,550 fish in 2005, according to Ecology documents.
The collapsed Cypress Island farm was last inspected by Ecology in July 2015, according to state records. At that time Ecology staff concluded the net pens appeared clean, and records were organized and accessible.
Samish Indian Nation Chairman Tom Wooten said after going to the farms near Cypress Island, looking at underwater video of the intact farms and comparing that with the broken material being stored in Anacortes, it’s clear that the collapsed farm was in poor condition before giving out.
“I wasn’t really sure what the damage was until I went out to the site ... and it was pretty apparent that it was catastrophic,” Wooten said. “The whole pen basically collapsed ... It was like accordioned in the bay and moving with the tide.”
Farm-raised fish on the loose
About 102,000 of the fish that swam out of the damaged farm remain unaccounted for.
“The concern is that it only takes a couple of them to start a run (a population that reproduces) and there are 100,000 of them out there,” Wooten said. “I’m hoping that between native fishermen, sport fishermen and marine mammals, we can clean these things out.”
Those that have been caught show the fish dispersed over hundreds of miles.
Some have been caught in area rivers and others as far as 260 miles away east of Nuchatilz Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, according to Fish & Wildlife’s online map.
Byron Andres, senior biologist of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said British Columbia’s Atlantic Salmon Watch program received 61 reports of Atlantic salmon being caught in areas around Vancouver Island between Aug. 25 and Sept. 20.
That’s more than five times the 11 reports the agency received from 2011 to 2016.
The agency seeks reports of Atlantic salmon in order to track whether those that escape from fish farms in British Columbia — and potentially from Washington state — establish populations in the area.
With Atlantic salmon in the same waters as Pacific salmon, some worry the farm-raised fish may impact native fish.
Several Pacific salmon species are endangered — likely to become extinct — or threatened, meaning they are at risk of becoming endangered.
The state, tribes and organizations — with millions of dollars in support from federal agencies and national nonprofits — have spent decades and billions of dollars trying to protect and restore those diminishing fish populations.
Millions of dollars have been spent in Skagit County alone to set back dikes that restrict marsh habitat, replace culverts blocking fish passage and reroute streams to reduce water temperatures for salmon.
Since 2000, about $86.4 million has been invested in or set aside for salmon recovery projects in the Skagit River watershed, according to Skagit Watershed Council records.
In light of those efforts, Wooten said it would be tragic if Atlantic salmon eat Pacific salmon, eat the forage fish Pacific salmon rely on, or follow Pacific salmon to their spawning grounds.
So far there is no evidence that is happening.
Fish & Wildlife and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents treaty tribes in Western Washington, have tested 80 of the Atlantic salmon caught since the collapse, according to a draft report.
They have found no evidence of disease in those fish, but did see evidence, including empty stomachs, that the fish were not eating in the wild.
This is not the first time Atlantic salmon have struggled to survive here.
Fish & Wildlife released thousands of young Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound in 1981 in an attempt to establish a new commercial fishery, but the attempt failed, Fish & Wildlife spokeswoman Michelle Dunlop said.
In the 1990s, three major incidents released a combined 591,000 Atlantic salmon from commercial farms.
Fish & Wildlife surveyed for those fish in subsequent years and never found them establishing populations in the wild or competing with or spawning with native salmon, Dunlop said.
For some, what happened in the 1990s is not enough to determine there are no risks.
“We don’t know 100 percent that there won’t be any adverse interactions with the native species ... from a standpoint of certainty, we are not there,” said Scott Schuyler of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe’s natural resources department. “We are in a period where many of the salmon stocks are depleted and declining and any adverse affect (is a big risk).”
Schuyler said the situation in Deepwater Bay was alarming as it unfolded — first with the collapse of the farm, then as the estimate of fish released “ballooned to six figures” about a week later.
Concerns increased when the fish were found in the Skagit River.
“The tribe is very alarmed that the escaped fish are in our watershed and we believe that more has to be done to ensure that any invasive species are not released into the wild, whether it’s on land or river or sea,” Schuyler said.
Still at risk
While Cooke’s seven other fish farms remain in Washington’s waters, there is a risk that more Atlantic salmon could be released.
Each farm is permitted to raise between 1.5 million and 5.5 million pounds of fish at a time, according to state permits. That means there is the potential to have up to 2.8 million adult Atlantic salmon in the state’s waters.
Those silvery, spotted salmon could reach Skagit County from any of the farms, the farthest of which is about 80 miles away.
About 500,000 nearly market-ready Atlantic salmon remain at the two intact fish farms near Cypress Island. Brown said those farms have been inspected since the collapse of the third farm and were deemed “sound and stable.”
Natural Resources will inspect all of Cooke’s farms as part of the state investigation. The agency’s Clark said those inspections began Thursday at a farm near Bainbridge Island.
Meanwhile, some say this is no place in the state for Atlantic salmon.
“In our view they don’t belong in the Pacific Ocean, they belong in the Atlantic Ocean,” Wooten said.
He said that has been the Samish tribe’s position since the farms were built in the 1980s and he hopes that the collapse puts the issue back on the radar for communities in the region.