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More than 160,000 Atlantic salmon escape Washington fish farm

By Ray Downs
More than 160,000 Atlantic salmon escape Washington fish farm
More than 160,000 Atlantic salmon escaped a fish farm in Washington's Puget Sound in August. Photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld/Wikipedia

Sept. 3 (UPI) -- A Canadian-owned fish farm in Washington state capsized last month, resulting in more than 160,000 invasive Atlantic salmon invading the waters of Puget Sound, which could cause problems for the native Pacific salmon population there.

The salmon farm, operated by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific on Cypress Island, located near Bellingham, tipped over with approximately 305,000 Atlantic salmon inside on August 19, reported the Seattle Times. The company and local fishermen were able to capture only about half of the fish that escaped.

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The farm held about 3 million pounds of Atlantic salmon until "the whole thing came apart," said Nell Halse, vice president, communications for Cooke Aquaculture Pacific.

"That is when we realized we were in a really serious situation," she said. "The numbers started out low and we still don't know the full number, but there is clearly a lot of them out there. Very, very much more."

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The company admits that the fish farm was in need of upgrades that may have contributed to the collapse. But they also blame "exceptionally high tides" during the recent solar eclipse.

However, Parker MacCready, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, said the data doesn't back up the company's claim.

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"The data speak for themselves: there were large tidal ranges around the day of the eclipse, but not out of the ordinary, and in fact they were smaller than during some recent months," he said.

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The escaped fish are also causing problems for Native American tribes, who don't allow Atlantic salmon in their waters and worry they could be a threat to the Pacific salmon, a natural species in the region.

"Just how many fish got loose is unknown. Their escape threatens our already weak stocks of native Pacific salmon as well as our treaty fishing rights," said a statement from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "Little state government oversight, lack of coordination and a rapid-response plan, along with poor communication by Cooke Aquaculture delayed quick action to contain the fish, allowing them to spread throughout Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington Coast and southern British Columbia."

According to the News Tribune, a farm-raised Atlantic salmon made it all the way to South Puget Sound, about 100 miles south of where the incident occurred. But Nisqually Harvest Program Manager David Smith told the paper that the fish looked "scrawny" and unhealthy.

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"It was ugly," he said, noting that fisherman didn't want to eat the fish.

Multiple state agencies are investigating the incident and the company could face penalties.

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