Salmon Spill

Marine feedlots and the tide against wild fish

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

In a time of eclipse, for the People of the Salmon the moment was catastrophic. At the height of their season for the most prized of wild salmon in the Salish Sea, Lummi fishermen south of Cypress Island hauled in several flaccid, broken-mouthed farm fish, the first of thousands of Atlantic salmon that had escaped from a failed pen.

They knew something was terribly wrong.

Days would pass before Cooke Aquaculture, a subsidiary of the international company responsible for the pen, would stop blaming the sun and moon, and admit to the full scale of the collapse. As many as 185,700 fish had escaped, with many thousands more pressing against compromised net pens.

Every escaped fish is an invasive species racing for every river in Puget Sound, their aggressive feeding and alien chemistry potentially confusing the critical breeding cycle of already threatened wild salmon stocks.

Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency, a necessary step in alerting state agencies and bringing their resources to bear. Meanwhile, Lummi fishermen set aside their seasonal fishery—bright-skinned stocks of wild Chinook and Coho—and set to work furiously to capture as many escaped Atlantic farm fish as they were able.

Lummi concentrated their limited resources in Bellingham Bay and at the mouth of the Nooksack River to protect and help prevent native fish of the area from being eaten or exposed to disease. In a matter of days, they’d hauled in about 200,000 pounds of fish, none of it prized or desired by the tribe.

“These fish don’t belong here in these waters, and I’ll do what I can to get rid of them,” pledged Dana Wilson, a Lummi tribal fisherman. “With all of the mopping up I’ve been doing over the weekend, I can now add ‘janitor’ to my resume.”

“Lummi is grateful for our fishermen who are out on the water protecting our livelihoods,” noted Timothy Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Nation. “Our fishermen are doing all they can to address the issue, but to ensure our native fish stocks are protected, the state and other parties involved need to ramp up their efforts.”

Still more days followed, and at last the Governor’s office stepped forward with a multi-agency response to the crisis. The departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology along with the Office of the Governor and state Emergency Management Division, formed a unified response in collaboration with local tribes and Cooke Aquaculture, the company responsible for the failed pens. Thousands more Atlantic salmon have been caught or removed from pens.

The company claims exceptionally high tides and strong currents caused damage to the salmon farm that has been in operation near Cypress Island in the westernmost part of Skagit County for approximately 30 years. Scientists and meteorologists scoffed—as did tribal fisherman, who reported they’d been catching ugly, malformed escaped fish for days prior to a convergence of solar and lunar tides.

“We are doing what we can to help limit the damage, but as far as we know, containment is indefinite,” said Lummi Natural Resources Director Merle Jefferson. “These invasive fish are going to find our rivers. How many fingerlings can 300,000 Atlantic salmon eat in an hour?”

“The release of net-pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again. I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters.”

The governor’s words are not good enough for the tribes of the Salish Sea, who’ve been warning of such a catastrophe for years. Atlantic salmon don’t belong here, tribal members say, and they threaten the wild stocks that do.

“The wild salmon stocks are already endangered. It is time to shut these operations down. Period,” Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, told The Seattle Times. “These fish are headed to every river in Puget Sound. We have been saying all along it was not a question of if, but when, this would happen.”

Non-native fish pose risk to wild salmon in many ways.

Atlantic salmon exhibit territorial and social dominance and their aggressiveness toward wild fish can cause disrupted spawning behaviors, stress and lack of growth, and death. Competitive interactions between Pacific fish and Atlantic salmon for prey and space especially affect steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss), their closest relative. Escaped Atlantic salmon swimming or colonizing rivers potentially place wild fish at risk of extinction. In recent surveys of 41 Vancouver Island rivers, 36.6 percent had populations of Atlantic salmon, which were also reproducing in some locations.

Our region has been targeted for decades by privately owned companies growing non-native seafoods in marine feedlots. Since industrial aquaculture occurs mostly under the waterline and out of sight, impacts were easily ignored while the regulatory process favored expansion.

After the massive escape of non-native farmed salmon from flimsy net pens at the south end of Cypress Island, the tide may finally be changing.

Large-scale shrimp, finfish and shellfish aquaculture has been promoted as a way to modernize seafood production, a “Blue Revolution” modeled after intensive agriculture’s green revolution that increased crop yields through technology, chemicals, genetic engineering and subsidies. President Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, said to small family farmers, “Get big or get out.”

Seeing the diversity of their landscapes replaced by monoculture, losing price and market share for traditional products, many got out, selling farms that had been in families for generations, committing suicide. Once requiring 20 percent of the country’s population to produce food, at the beginning of this century, less than 2 percent in the United States farmed or fished for a living.

Replicating the feedlot production model on tidelands, shorelines and oceans would increase food for a hungry planet or at least diners in white-tablecloth restaurants, proponents touted.

Congress declared in 1980 that “aquaculture was in the national interest.” Offshore, intensive aquaculture was envisioned for the federally controlled ocean zone (three nautical miles offshore for most states) to the 200-nautical-mile limit of the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which comprises two-thirds of the budget of the Department of Commerce, stated their goal of “expanding sustainable U.S. marine aquaculture production by at least 50 percent by the year 2020.” NOAA’s funding of aquaculture has been estimated at $100 million. Futuristic cage and gear design, feed and site studies, funding of conferences and glossy publications have created a sense of inevitability. NOAA’s assistance extended to private companies operating in state waters and tidelands.

Other federal and state regulatory agencies overseeing labeling, fish health, siting, escapement, water quality and other criteria have benefited the industry. Few have imposed rigorous standards or penalties for noncompliance or environmental impacts.

Production of salmon in Washington waters began in the early 1970s when the Union Carbide Corporation and NOAA operated an experimental farm near Manchester, south of Bainbridge Island. Farming of Norwegian salmon (Salmo salar) was widespread along the coast of Norway, with governmental support for small scale, rural farmers. Establishing companies in Maine, Washington, and British Columbia, with similar coastlines, appealed to Norwegian fish farmers, sometimes called “rogues” because they pushed for fewer restrictions than in the old country.

Unlike in Norway, the Pacific coast had native salmon, commercial, tribal and recreational fisheries, and introduction of a nonnative species opened a Pandora’s box of ramifications.

When permits were being issued for private operations in Washington waters, Rochester resident Dan Swecker purchased the ninth salmon farm license, but became angry at increasing regulatory requirements and public opposition. He declared that he spent “five years and $500,000” to get a permit.

“It was that frustrating experience that caused me to go to Olympia and eventually become a state senator,” Swecker said.

Consistently promoting the industry, the senator began introducing legislation to streamline the permitting process, “emergency” legislation to allow salmon farming in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

At a forum with the commercial fishing industry Swecker declared, “My industry is going to bury yours.”

His words may be prophetic.

Protection of wild fish and fisheries was increasingly viewed as inhibiting urban, industrial, agricultural and even recreational activities.

A former director of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in the 1990s promoted quadrupling a state program that reared Chinook and Coho salmon in net pens until their out-migration instinct disappeared. Released into Puget Sound, they would provide year-round angling opportunities and Washington could be marketed as the “sport fishing capital” of the country.

In a public forum, when the WDFW Chinook management program director was asked what constituted the diet of these behaviorally-altered residents of Puget Sound, the response was “juvenile wild salmon and other small fish.”

Fighting for survival, Washington’s commercial fishing industry was drawn into two expensive ballot measures in 1995 and 1999 that would have eliminated the state’s small boat fleet. Drafters and financial supporters of the initiatives were later exposed as industrial water users of the Columbia River and large, out-of-state recreational fishing companies and organizations. Seeing that family fishing businesses were under attack with demonizing images and language, conservation, civic, religious, food health and good governance groups rallied behind the industry. Both ballot measures, I-640 and I-696, were soundly defeated with 60 percent support by voters.

During this contentious era of attacks on commercial and tribal fisheries, concerned citizens and scientists were realizing industrial-scale production of fish, aided by several agencies and politicians, replicated some of the worst practices of factory farming on land in the marine environment.

Arthur Whiteley, a professor emeritus the University of Washington Department of Zoology, calculated that four privately owned farmed salmon pens south of Bainbridge Island allowed untreated fish waste equal to 830,000 urban residents to flush directly into Puget Sound. Seattle’s sewage treatment plant cost more than $573 million to build and $80 million annually to operate and released treated, sterilized total suspended solids.

The salmon farming industry, relying on nature to absorb untreated fish waste flushing from the net pens, paid nothing for the service. Impacts of accumulated feces and usage of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals to control diseases and parasites affected other marine life. Sending a diver to examine the area under the pens, an Ecology manager reported, “The old growth kelp forests are dead.”

Risks continued to wild salmon from the farmed salmon industry, with a series of escapes of Atlantic salmon into Washington waters.

From 1996 to 1999, more than 613,000 Atlantic salmon broke free from marine feedlots in several different locations, including the Cypress Island pens.

Since the fish farm industry self-reports escapes, records of the WDFW showed no escapes many years, even as commercial and recreational fishers caught these alien salmon locally and as far away as Copper River and the Bering Sea.

Locating fish farms near the mouths of spawning rivers pose significant risk to out-migrating juvenile wild salmon because the net pen enclosures function as reservoirs, amplifying parasites such as sea lice and pathogens. During a meeting of the state Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, when a WDFW biologist announced that viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHSV) had been found in salmon farms in Puget Sound, a member of the committee asked what was being done to eradicate the disease. The response was that there were protocols in place to deal with outbreaks. When pressed how pathogens or parasites could be confined in a fluid environment, the response was, they couldn’t.

Another outbreak of infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus was found in salmon farms off Bainbridge Island. Outbreaks of parasitic sealice have put British Columbia’s wild salmon at risk in the Province also for decades. Research shows that a deadly virus Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HMSI) has been found that causes serious diseases that can infect wild fish.

Neil Frazer, professor at the University of Hawaii, after extensive research said, “The main problem with sea-cage farming of finfish is that when it is done on the industrial scale that operators claim to require in order to make a profit, it eventually destroys surrounding wild fish stocks…. Nature has an effectively inexhaustible supply of diseases.”

With production costs for farm fish heavily subsidized, cheaper Atlantic salmon flooded the marketplace. Campaigns cajoled consumers into not eating wild fish. The commercial fishing industry lost marketshare and licenses tumbled in price. Bristol Bay licenses valued at more than $320,000 in 1995 were selling for $20,000 in 2002. That winter, several fishermen, from Oregon to Alaska, committed suicide.

Despite a Washington state regulation requiring salmon species to be labeled, farm salmon were a pink product on a Styrofoam tray. Labeling that would allow consumers to differentiate fish that swam freely from those confined in a pen swimming in their own waste did not occur until a national class-action lawsuit was filed in April 2003. It required the farm salmon industry to comply with a U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation that labeling must contain info about artificial colorants in the fish.

Washington’s salmon farm industry has had a confusing constellation of owners, including Scandinavian corporations, Alaska-based seafood company Icicle, and last year all operations were sold by private equity firm Paine and Partners LLC to Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian corporation located in New Brunswick. Cooke fish farm operations in Eastern Canada, Spain, Scotland, Chile, and Maine and projects they will produce more than 275,000 metric tons of seafood annually and generate $1.8 billion in annual sales.

The Dept. of Ecology reports our state has the “largest marine finfish aquaculture industry in the United States, with eight farms producing approximately 17 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually.”

Cooke Industry has been pressing to expand near Port Angeles, installing as many as 20 more sites in the Puget Sound area. A hearing on the Port Angeles proposal is scheduled for Sept. 7.

Because of regulatory oversight of the salmon farm industry that is often described as lax, wild fish advocates note that if penalties for escapes even exist, they usually are so small they do not create incentives to prevent escapes and will not compensate for ecological and socioeconomic risks. WDFW has not even required reporting of Atlantic salmon on catch cards until this latest catastrophe. Potential impacts on small and tribal fishing businesses, marine and river ecosystems, and other environmental risks have been been downplayed in the push to allow these private corporations to gain economically.

In response to the Cypress Island pen failure, Cooke could be fined as much as $10,000 daily for this incident, if they are found negligent. If the massive spill is attributed to the moon or other accidental cause, penalties might be avoided.

Following the escapes, the governor directed Ecology to put on hold any new permits for salmon farm net pens.

Wild Fish Conservancy filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue Cooke Aquaculture Pacific under the Clean Water Act for pollution caused by the fish farm as it collapsed. This month, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) filed a federal lawsuit to stop the Trump administration, through its U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, from greenlighting a massive expansion of industrial shellfish aquaculture in Washington state coastal waters. DNR is the lead agency on contract compliance, in collaboration with other agencies, to ensure compliance with lease terms.

“Puget Sound is the lifeblood of our region,” the Wild Fish Conservancy wrote to Gov. Inslee. “It is where we take our children to play and teach them about the wonders of nature. It is where businesses and families continue Washington’s rich history of nourishing ourselves with Puget Sound’s salmon, shellfish, forage fish, rockfish, crabs, shrimp and prawns. It is also home for many of our iconic animals such as orcas, porpoises, otters and all five species of salmon. We cannot risk all of that to benefit an international corporation that will pollute our Sound with harmful waste, invasive species, deadly parasites and lethal viruses that infect our wild salmon.”

For continued updates about the Cypress Island Atlantic salmon pen break,

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