Problems mount for Cooke Aquaculture on U.S. West Coast

An escape by thousands of fish from a New Brunswick company's sea farm has legislators in Washington state pushing for a ban on Atlantic salmon aquaculture.

Competing bills in Washington state legislature threaten end to Atlantic salmon aquaculture

A member of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe in Washington state, with Atlantic salmon caught in the annual fall test fishery. (Submitted: Upper Skagit Indian Tribe)

An escape by thousands of fish from a New Brunswick company's sea farm has legislators in Washington State pushing for a ban on Atlantic salmon aquaculture.

The Cooke Aquaculture farm was badly damaged during a storm, allowing thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon to escape into Puget Sound.

The cages had contained 305,000 market-size salmon, or fish that were three years old. Of these, about 160,000 escaped.

The New Brunswick based company now faces competing bills in the Washington legislature, one from a Democrat and one from a Republican, either one of which would end farming of Atlantic salmon in the state.

Escaped fish still turning up

And at least one lawsuit has been launched against a subsidiary, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, LLC.

As recently as last week, Atlantic salmon escapees were being caught in the upper Skagit River nearly 80 kilometres from the coast.

"My bill takes a very clear approach," said Republican state representative Jim Walsh. "It puts an immediate prohibition on any more farm-raising of non-native stocks of fish."

Walsh, who represents the coastal district of Aberdeen, said stocks of native Chinook and coho salmon have been declining in recent years and the presence of Atlantic salmon in the same waters is seen as a threat.

Native fish weakened

"Our native stocks are like a person whose immune system is already compromised," Walsh said. "And the introduction of the non-native species into our public waters is like a cold.
Jim Walsh, a Republican in the state legislature, will propose a bill in January that would ban Atlantic salmon aquaculture in state waters. (houserepublicans.we.gov)

"Where to a healthy person the cold would be just a nuisance, to a person with a compromised immune system a cold can be fatal."

Scott Schuyler, the natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, said its annual fall test fishery to determine the state of native Chum salmon has routinely turned up more Atlantic salmon than chums.

The state has also confirmed the presence of Atlantic salmon in the fishery.

And this is happening, Schuyler said, close to 50 miles (80 kilometres) upstream, a short distance below spawning grounds for native salmon.

"They're kicking, they're swimming fine, they're still decent-looking fish," Schuyler said. "I guess it's not a stretch to say that they can't go that extra 10 miles to get to the major spawning grounds."

Schuyler is concerned about interaction between farmed and wild salmon.

"Is there some sort of stress that's put on the native fish in the spawning grounds by having these other fish present? We just don't know. There's a lot of unanswered questions that we hope to, we hope are answered someday."

Cooke Aquaculture has not responded to a request for comment from CBC News.
 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the Cooke cages contained mature salmon, which are fish that have reached sexual maturity and are at least four years old. In fact, the escaped fish were market-size, or three years old.
    Dec 18, 2017 3:51 PM AT