Lummi Nation fishermen scrambled to contain a spill of farmed Atlantic salmon in north Puget Sound before they tarnished local waters, shedding light on a global struggle between farmed and wild fish. I worked with many to tell the story of the farmed Atlantic salmon net pen spill into the Salish Sea back in August 2017. The event sparked a movement of people to speak out against Atlantic salmon net pens in the Puget Sound. Please watch and share the following short film to learn about wild fish in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. If you would like to find out more information, images, video, please contact me.
In August 2017, more than 260,000 farmed Atlantic salmon escaped into Puget Sound after the collapse of the Cypress Island Cooke Aquaculture net pen. At first, Cooke falsely reported that “king tides” due to the solar eclipse had caused the salmon escape. Later we found out that the escape occurred because of Cooke's negligence. As a journalist focusing on our ocean, I found myself heading up to Bellingham soon after the salmon spill with cameras in hand, planning on capturing the story. I wasn't sure how I was going to get on a boat, but thanks to connections and reaching out to the folks at Lummi Island Wild and Dana Wilson of the Lummi Nation they allowed me to join their crews to document cleaning up the mess of farmed Atlantic salmon escape.
Neither Cooke Aquaculture nor the state of Washington had an effective strategic plan in case of an Atlantic salmon escape. The strategic plan for the site had been updated and approved only eight months before the release, but it proved inadequate. Cooke implemented the plan, which asked recreational fisher people to go fish and clean up the mess. Nobody questioned how ineffective a recreational fishing campaign to clean up 260,000 Atlantic farmed salmon would be...but I surely did.
The first signal of inadequate response came when I could not convince any of my long time friends or family who are all recreational fisherpeople to drive their boats and help clean up the farmed Atlantic salmon mess. Over and over I heard, “Why would we want to spend our money on gas to drive more than two to three hours each way to catch farmed Atlantic salmon?”
There were recreational people who did go and fish, but they did not put a dent in the number of escaped fish caught. It was not until Cooke Aquaculture and Washington state agencies opened the fishery up to the Lummi Nation commercial fishers that 57,000 Atlantic salmon were recovered. To date there are still more than 200,000 Atlantic salmon in the Salish Sea which are believed to be dead or dying of starvation. In the end, recreational fisherpeople caught a mere 2,500 of the escaped 260,000 fish.
There is great irony in having a $2 billion company and a number of Washington state agencies (Department of Natural Resources, Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) tell people to go fishing to clean up the mess of Atlantic farmed salmon, an invasive species, in our public waters.
We interviewed Kurt Beardslee of Wild Fish Conservancy who has filed a citizen lawsuit against Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, LLC. Washington state is the only state on the West Coast that allows Atlantic salmon farming in their waters. The practice is banned in California, Oregon and Alaska. We subsidize Atlantic farmed salmon. As Beardslee explains, “They (Atlantic salmon) are publicly subsidized. They require the public’s water to raise their fish. They require the public’s water to clean up their pollution and remove their waste. They require the public to clean up their messes.”
There is something fishy with Cooke Aquaculture and it’s not their fish.
As reported in October, they tried to silence the Lummi Nation with money. Read full article here. Cooke Aquaculture also tried to hide how bad the spill was when they lied to Washington state agencies. At the beginning of February, a full report was released about the Cypress Island Cooke Aquaculture net pen failure. The state agencies all blame Cooke for not sharing accurate information.
Although the Atlantic salmon net pen escape was tragic, it united an entire community of people in the Pacific Northwest to speak out against Atlantic farmed salmon and the net pens in the Salish Sea. The incident inspired many to take action to protect the ecology of the Puget Sound and our wild fish stocks.
The report blames inadequate and misleading information from Cooke Aquaculture for Washington State agencies failure to act. Farmed Atlantic salmon in the Cooke Aquaculture Cypress Island net pen were almost ready to harvest. It’s now known that Cooke Aquaculture’s equipment to remove biofouling (mussels and other growth) from their nets broke down. Were they hoping to harvest the more than three million pounds of fish without having to spend any money on repairs? In July 2017, one month before the net pen collapse, the anchors dragged during king tides and nobody from the state investigated underwater to look at the net pens. Malfunctioning equipment and excessive biofouling on the nets were found out to be the cause of the collapse. The state agencies believe Cooke Aquaculture lied to cover up their negligence.
Since the disaster in August, half of the Atlantic salmon net pen leases have been revoked due to negligence. And the other 4 net pens in the Puget Sound leases will not be renewed as Washington State Senate and House passed a bill that they will not renew the leases for net pens. Many hope this will be a turning of the tide and Washington state will be a catalyst for governments in other parts of the world including our British Columbia neighbors where Atlantic salmon farming puts local waters and wild salmon species at risk. I hope watching this film, will inspire you to learn more about the food you eat and that you will choose wild fish.
Frankenfish A Farmed Atlantic Salmon Story was created in partnership with the Communication Leadership graduate program at The University of Washington, the Nereus Program and Ocean Link NW. Special thanks to Beau Garreau from Children of the Setting Sun Productions for his drone footage and to Harold Bailey. Huge shout out to our sponsors Light & Motion, Underwater Sports, Backscatter Underwater Photo & Video.