Lummi Nation fishermen catch an estimated 20,000 Atlantic salmon following fish farm collapse

It's unclear how many Atlantic salmon escaped from the pen. The Lummi Nation says tribal fishermen have removed 20,000 from the Puget Sound. Washington state officials says Cooke Aquaculture has recovered 120,000 fish from the pen and that more are still inside.

Washington state official: 'This is a very complex industrial salvage operation'

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

The Lummi Nation says its fishermen have pulled more than 90,000 kilograms of Atlantic salmon from the Puget Sound since Thursday — the same day the nation issued a state of emergency following the net pen failure of a nearby fish farm.

It's not clear how many salmon escaped on Aug. 19, but the pens held somewhere around 305,000 fish, Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife has said.

Initially, Cooke Aquaculture,  the company that owns the fish farm near the San Juan Islands, not far from Victoria, B.C., estimated the number of escapees in the range of 4,000 to 5,000.

Since the net failure, the company has recovered around 120,000 fish from inside the pen, Washington public information officer Cori Simmons said.

"What I am seeing is a very, very large containment operation," said Simmons, who speaks for the three Washington state agencies involved with the response.

She said some of the Atlantic salmon are still inside.

"It is a very badly damaged, mangled structure and this is a very complex industrial salvage operation."

Commercial fishers have been encouraged to catch the Atlantic salmon, which are a concern in Pacific waters as they compete with wild fish for food and other resources. (Ellie Kinley)

The Lummi Nation's salvage operation has involved encouraging tribal fishermen to get out on the water and remove as many of the escaped fish as possible. So far they've caught an estimated 20,000 Atlantic salmon, according to a release posted to the nation's Facebook page on Monday.

A concern for the Lummi and state officials is the potential impact on local fish populations, through competition, predation or disease transfer.

"The native fish from these waters have fed our families for thousands of years, so it's our responsibility to honor that and ensure the tradition continues for future generations," said Timothy Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Nation, in an online statement.

Atlantic salmon catch confirmed off coast of B.C.

Off the coast of B.C., anglers are encouraged to report any suspected Atlantic catches to Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Atlantic salmon watch program.

Andrew Thomson, regional director of the department's Pacific Region, said the program has received three reports since the fish farm escape, including one confirmed catch west of Port Renfrew over the weekend.

Thomson said his department will continue to monitor the situation, which could mean doing surveys in the rivers this fall to check for Atlantic salmon entering fresh water systems.

When asked about the Lummi Nation's approach to the escaped fish, Thomson said DFO is not encouraging people in B.C. to increase their fishing activity.

"We're not looking to increase angling effort at the moment to try to catch these fish, mostly because we would be concerned about increasing angler effort on stocks of concern, of Pacific salmon," he said. 

Simmons said Washington state's incident command team is in contact with Canadian counterparts. 

They're also asking asking anglers to report any suspected Atlantic salmon catches, including through an online form.

With files from All Points West and Elizabeth McArthur