When the news broke that thousands of non-native salmon were released into the waters around the islands due to the collapse of a fish farm, my first question was: “Why do we have non-native species in our waters to begin with?”
Why are we allowing companies to house an invasive species in our ocean? All that is separating the farmed Atlantic salmon from the endangered native salmon is a net, which was unsuccessful at keeping the fish contained.
Alaska and California have banned fish farming and Oregon currently has no active farms. Why don’t we ban the practice in Washington state and protect our west coast waters?
The Lummi Tribe declared a state of emergency over the collapse of the net pen facility. The tribe fears that the Atlantic salmon may introduce competition and disease to the native salmon population.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration memorandum from 2001 said that there was “little to no risk” of Atlantic salmon escaping from fish farms. The memo also stated that since 1991 more than a million Atlantic salmon had escaped from net pens, yet most had been unaccounted for, leading researchers to believe they were prey for the sound’s predatory species. It’s safe to assume that at least that many have escaped between the release of the memo and now, on top of the potentially 300,000 released in the net failure.
According to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, British Columbia reported “at least” as many as 50,000 net pen farmed Atlantic salmon escape from its facilities annually. ANNUALLY!
As SeaDoc Society’s Joe Gaydos told The Sounder, Atlantic salmon were found in tributaries almost 200 miles away from Cypress Island following the last escape in 1996. This leads me to believe that the researchers who said the Atlantic salmon would not survive were wrong. Washington state does not require declaration of Atlantic salmon catches, because they are listed as an invasive species. So how do we know they’re not surviving?
But wait, we DO know they are surviving! According to WDFW, there is evidence on Vancouver Island that indicates escaped Atlantic salmon have successfully reproduced offspring that have lived for “at least” a year.
WDFW reported that it has captured Atlantic salmon smolts in a seasonal trap in the Chehalis River and at a migrant trap at the Mayfield Dam since 1986. That’s more than 30 years’ worth of proof of Atlantic salmon reproduction in Washington state. Atlantic salmon have been observed by officials in 12 streams in Washington and 77 streams and rivers in British Columbia, according to WDFW.
NOAA representatives have told several news agencies lately that the spill is nothing to be concerned about because there were major escapes in the 80s and 90s and purposeful releases of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound in the early 80s. From these prior events, they have concluded that the Atlantic salmon pose no threat.
Though there is “no evidence” of Atlantic salmon impacting local salmon populations, is that a risk we’re willing to take at this time? The Southern resident orcas, an indicator species of the Salish Sea, are starving to death because their diet of native salmon is slowly dwindling.
There is no consensus on whether or not this invasive species is a threat to native populations. One agency says yes, another says no. How about we just stop taking the risk and ban net pen fish farming of nonnative salmon in our state’s waters? If we do, maybe we can influence British Columbia to follow suit.