British Columbia

Report blames negligence, not eclipse, for Washington fish farm collapse

Owners of a fish farm that collapsed in Puget Sound reject a scathing government report that concludes they dramatically underestimated escaped salmon numbers.

Company disputes conclusion that number of salmon escaped from fish farm was higher than reported

Drone footage shows the mangled remains of a net pen near Cypress Island in Washington state that collapsed Aug. 19, 2017, releasing about 250,000 Atlantic salmon into Pacific waters, according to a report by state agencies. (Beau Garreau)

 A scathing report by three Washington state government departments says a fish farm company falsely blamed the collapse of its Puget Sound net pens on a solar eclipse and misrepresented the volume of escaped fish.

The report issued by the state departments of natural resources, ecology, and fish and wildlife concluded the collapse was preventable and was primarily due to neglected maintenance.

In response, the owner of the fish farm near Cypress Island, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, dismissed the report's findings as incomplete and inaccurate. 

Amy Windrope, the northern Puget Sound regional director for the fish and wildlife department, told All Points West guest host Khalil Akhtar the report set out to determine why the fish farm collapse happened, and what impact the escaped salmon have had on the sound.

"The collapse everyone heard about was in August, but before that August incident there was an incident in July," Windrope said.

In that first "almost catastrophic" incident, she said, the net pens — poorly maintained and weighed down by tonnes of mussels and other marine organisms — pulled away from the mooring and had to be towed back into position.

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 internal company memo following that incident stated "we almost lost the farm."

"Cooke made this situation even more difficult by under-reporting the number of fish that escaped during the net-pen collapse, and over-reporting the number it recovered afterward," Windrope said.

In total, she said about 250,000 salmon escaped the twisted wreckage of their pens — nearly double the number estimated by Cooke.

State inspection insufficient

Cooke Inc. was fined $322,000 US for the escaped salmon, which are considered a pollutant by the department of ecology. Windrope acknowledged the state could be partly responsible for failing to inspect the fish farm as vigorously as it should have.

Continued monitoring will determine if the Atlantic salmon are reproducing in local waters.

The report rejected Cooke Aquaculture's initial claim that the net pen collapse was due to natural causes. The company initially blamed strong tides related to the solar eclipse.

A drone image of the collapsed Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm near Cypress Island in Washington state's Puget Sound. (Beau Garreau)

"Actually the tides during that eclipse event were actually less than the tides that would have happened earlier in the year," Windrope said.

The report concluded properly designed and maintained net pens would have withstood the tidal currents of August 19.

In its response, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific rejected key findings of the report and alleged bias on the part of the department of natural resources and its commissioner.

Anti-fish farm bias alleged

Joel Richardson, vice president of public relations for Cooke Inc., said the report "appears to be intended to fuel the push by aquaculture opponents to put Cooke out of business in Washington state."

As for the accusation that Cooke overestimated the number of fish it recovered from the collapsed nets, he said, "The state's wrong because the fish were counted one by one by Cooke staff, with state observers watching."

"The state chose not to use those numbers but to use an arbitrary formula to account for the fish, which was incorrect."

Richardson said the company was shut out of the investigation by the state agencies and given only three days over a weekend to respond to the 266-page draft report.

Meanwhile, two Native American tribes that oppose Cooke's operations were invited to contribute, adding to the appearance of bias, he said. 

With files from CBC Radio's All Points West.