Massive Atlantic Salmon Escape Blamed on the Eclipse

Tribal fishermen say the fish farm owner is using the eclipse as an excuse.

Alex Swerdloff

Photo by Flickr user matt.hintsa

On Saturday afternoon, an anchor pulled loose at a fish farm near Washington State's San Juan Islands, and thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon came pouring into the waters there. No one knows how many fish escaped—although we do now that the pen contained 3 million pounds of fish when it was breached. Needless to say (but we'll say it anyway) that's a lot of fish.

The director of the Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest is calling the event an "environmental nightmare."

As commercial fishing boats desperately attempt to catch as many of the fish as possible—before they potentially bring viruses and parasites into the local waters and contaminate native fish—the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is trying to figure out how in the world this happened. Cooke Aquaculture, the owner of the fish farm, says the cause is clear; they're blaming "exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with the solar eclipse." But some people are throwing serious shade on this theory, saying that Cooke Aquaculture is just using the eclipse as an excuse.

Fishermen, environmental groups, and Lummi Tribe members aren't exactly buying Cooke Aquaculture's reasoning. They're citing tide tables, which show higher tides every month this year than on the day of the eclipse.

Regarding the company's certitude that the eclipse was the cause of the disaster, Chris Wilke, executive director of the Puget Soundkeeper, an environmental non-profit, said, "Part of the feed going to these salmon is chicken feed, but this is B.S."

Likewise, The Wild Fish Conservancy pointed out in a statement that on July 27—well before the eclipse—another pen controlled by Cooke Aquaculture broke free from its anchor. They say the company should build its pens to withstand typical tides in the area.

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Local tribes agree. Casey Ruff, who is the management director at the Skagit River System Cooperative, which acts as a natural resource management group for the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, said, "Amongst the tribes, these net pen operations have been a big concern, and we have grave issues with their proposed expansion and negative effects to wild salmon resources. Our hope is the Department of Ecology comes up with a best management framework for these operations trying to get permits to expand."

MUNCHIES reached out to Cooke Aquaculture for comment, but has yet to hear back. In a written statement released on Monday, the company stated that it "maintains a detailed fish escape and recapture plan as part of its operations, and has implemented that plan in response to this loss of fish," adding that it had "applied for permits to allow us to strengthen and update the Cypress site even before the existing fish were harvested out."

While the parties involved try to sort out the cause of the disaster, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has asked the public to go fishing—with no limit on size of number of salmon caught. Grab your poles.