Thousands of Atlantic salmon escape fish farm near Victoria after nets rip
Thousands of Atlantic salmon have escaped into Pacific waters east of Victoria after nets ripped at a U.S. fish farm in the San Juan Islands.
The company, Cooke Aquaculture, blamed “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” for the failure of the net pen near Cypress Island.
In a statement, Cooke said it didn’t know how many fish escaped, but estimated it was “several thousand.”
The company’s statement did not say when the fish escaped, and no one was available for an interview, but the Seattle Times has reported the fish started being caught in the Puget Sound on Sunday.
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Atlantic salmon are not native to Pacific waters, but are a major aquaculture species in Washington State and B.C.
Their presence in fish farms — and potential to escape from net cages — has been a hotly debated part of the West Coast fish farm industry for years, due to concerns about whether the foreign fish could cause harm to the five wild species of Pacific salmon.
‘Potentially invasive species’
The concern with an introduced species, like Atlantic salmon on the West Coast, is whether it could become invasive — not just present, but damaging to the native ecology.
In Washington state, where this escape happened, the department of fish and wildlife puts Atlantic salmon on its list of invasive species that are not regulated, but are considered “highly threatening” over concerns they could harm native fish stocks through competition, predation, or disease transfer.
In Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada monitors for escaped Atlantic salmon, according to a statement, but doesn’t use terms like “invasive” or describe them as any particular threat to local fish.
University of Victoria ecologist John Volpe said it is unknown what the impacts are.
“In my mind it’s really a dereliction of duty in terms of the regulating mechanisms in this country to not have an answer to that question, given that our coast of British Columbia here is literally awash in these potentially invasive species,” he said.
Volpe, who has found evidence of Atlantic salmon spawning in B.C. waters, said there has been a “chill” on researching the topic in Canada.
No one from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was available to comment, though a spokesperson said the agency’s program monitoring Atlantic salmon sightings had no new reports this week.
A 2015 report by DFO looking for Atlantic salmon found none in the Vancouver Island streams that were surveyed.
The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife did not respond to inquiries from CBC News.