Everyone is talking about the salmon, but almost no one about the interests of the fish themselves
BELLINGHAM, Washington––Thousands of people around the Salish Sea have been talking about the Great Salmon Escape since August 20, 2017, when an estimated 162,000 hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon made a jailbreak from a ruptured sea pen at Cypress Island in the San Juan Island chain.
Native American tribes and environmentalists, among others, are using Great Salmon Escape stories to gain political leverage in conflicts against the aquaculture industry that have raged for more than 50 years.
Stimulus to fishing––and waste
The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife has seized upon the incident to stimulate salmon fishing.
The Great Salmon Escape produced––temporarily––the most abundant salmon population on Puget Sound since 1971-1979, when the annual recreational catch averaged more than 1.3 million salmon per year. The catch has never been that high since, and has reached even one million just four times.
Deeming the escaped Atlantic salmon “invasive,” the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which has responsibility for overseeing the aquaculture industry, has also urged recreational fishers to target the escaped Atlantic salmon, irrespective of whether anyone will eat the catch.
“If your local food pantry will not take salmon fillets,” a Washington DNR web page advises, “your Waste Management yard and food waste curbside bin is an appropriate disposal destination. You may also visit your local Waste Management site to dispose of unwanted Atlantic salmon.”
What were the salmon thinking?
Hardly anyone seems to be talking about the fish themselves, least of all as sentient beings with an interest in their freedom.
What were the salmon thinking about when one of the three Cooke Aquaculture fish pens at Cypress Island collapsed, allowing many of them to make a clean getaway?
Why did approximately as many salmon not escape from the same ruptured nets, even though they could have?
Did the escaped salmon sense that only days later they were to be dragged from the water, killed, and butchered?
Did the salmon who did not escape simply not know they could, or did they have a false sense of security about their familiar surroundings?
Running for the border
All of the salmon probably did have some sense of having reached physical maturity. They may have recognized that as they all grew, they had ever less room to swim in. They might have felt an instinct to try to find spawning streams which, for them, had never existed.
Some of the escaped Atlantic salmon ran for the Canadian border, thirty miles away swimming either north or west.
“Some have swum up to 150 miles away, into the Pacific Ocean off the outer coast of Vancouver Island,” reported John Ryan of the Seattle-based National Public Radio station KUOW. But some of the salmon were still dispersing further.
Whatever the escaped salmon were thinking, they were not all thinking the same thing, since they did not all flee in the same direction. Some seemed to have distinctly different notions of where they should go, and why. Some apparently tried to make their own spawning runs.
Dispersed over the region
Some escaped salmon were caught “as far north as Chilliwack on the Fraser River in British Columbia and as far west [and south] as the Quinault River,” on the Olympic peninsula, wrote longtime Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda V. Mapes.
Salmon reaching the Quinault River would have had to first swim the entire 100-mile length of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, then swim south for another 120 miles before turning inland.
The escaped salmon are suspected of having hunted smaller native chinook, coho, and pink Pacific salmon along the way to wherever they went. Many of the native salmon were then returning to Salish Sea tributaries to spawn.
Tides & eclipse
Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson Nell Halse initially blamed the Great Salmon Escape on “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with the solar eclipse,” which occurred a day after the escape.
Countered Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center tidal energy expert Brian Polagye, speaking to Ashley Braun of Scientific American, “Tides are marvelously predictable.”
Because tides are created by the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon, and change with a cyclical rhythm, tidal tables have been discovered going at least as far back in time as written projections of any natural occurrences.
Pen was worn out
The most widely accepted explanation for the Great Salmon Escape is that the 16-year-old salmon pen, at a 30-odd-year-old facility, was worn out and could no longer withstand the strong currents to which it was continually exposed.
Charged Ryan, “Cooke Aquaculture and state officials knew at least six months ago that the floating salmon pen that collapsed was ‘nearing the end of serviceable life,’” as the company itself reported in seeking a permit to replace and reposition it, “with accelerating corrosion eating away at its hinges and steel structure.”
Controversial from start-up
The salmon farm, only recently acquired by Cooke Aquaculture from Icicle Seafoods, now a Cooke subsidiary, was controversial from start-up. The author of a letter to the Seattle Times denounced it in April 1989 as “not a farm, but a feedlot for fish, with all the problems of concentrated animal waste, uneaten feed and disease that are found in any feedlot.”
The letter was prescient. “An explosive growth of algae near Cypress Island has killed hundreds of thousands of pounds of Atlantic salmon and other fish,” the Seattle Times reported in September 1989.
This was just the first of many pollution episodes attributed to the Cypress Island sea pens, triggering frequent objections from the Lummi tribe of nearby Lummi Island.
The sounds of silence
After the Great Salmon Escape, “Cooke Aquaculture offered to pay a premium price for Atlantic salmon caught by the Lummi Nation, if the tribe would not advocate getting rid of net pen aquaculture,” disclosed Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times on October 12, 2017.
“Lummi fishermen recovered the lion’s share of the fish on the loose after the tribe launched an emergency fishery,” explained Mapes. “Going on behind the scenes ever since have been negotiations by the company with tribal and non-tribal fishers and firms involved in the cleanup effort.”
Cooke Aquaculture “eventually paid the Lummi Nation $1.3 million — $30 a fish,” Mapes wrote. But first, Mapes wrote, Cooke Aquaculture cofounder and chief executive Glenn Cooke “proposed paying $42 per fish, instead of $30, ‘subject to agreement between the parties that neither party would use the facts surrounding this escape to advocate for a phase out or ban of net pen aquaculture’ until a study could be done to evaluate the impacts of the fish escape.”
The Lummi declined the offer of much more money in exchange for silence.
No new permits, but a million more farmed fish
Meanwhile, Washington governor Jay Inslee “directed that no new permits be issued for new pens in Washington waters while the incident is being investigated,” Mapes reported, even as the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife “approved a permit for Cooke Aquaculture to rear another million Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound.”
Said a Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife media release, “Current laws and administrative rules do not give state regulators the authority to deny Cooke’s permit to move healthy fish into an existing net pen.”
“Founded in 1985 by one family with 5,000 fish in New Brunswick, Canada,” Mapes noted, “Cooke Aquaculture is the largest Atlantic salmon farming operation in North America, with about $1.8 billion in annual sales.”
In the Pacific Northwest, Cooke Aquaculture competes chiefly against the Norwegian-owned firm Marine Harvest.
Marine Harvest has also been in conflict for several decades with Native Americans, especially the several tribes who live alongside the Georgia Strait, which divides Vancouver Island from the rest of British Columbia, including the city of Vancouver itself.
Currently, six First Nations “are six weeks into occupations and protests of two Marine Harvest fish farms off northern Vancouver Island,” reported Erica Gies for Hakai magazine on October 12, 2017.
“Not moving until the fish farms do”
“The nations say they’re not moving until the fish farms do,” Gies continued. “Occupation leaders from the ‘Namgis, the Mamalilikulla, and the four nations of Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw say the fish farms do not have permission to operate in their territorial waters. They, and the hereditary chiefs of the Tlowitsis and Mumtagila nations standing in solidarity with them, are calling for the eviction of fish farms throughout the Broughton Archipelago,” near the northern end of the Georgia Strait.
“The activists say farmed Atlantic salmon are causing harm to nearby native Pacific salmon and other animals on which they rely,” Gies wrote.
“More broadly,” Gies assessed, “the stand is about who holds the legal rights to these waters. Marine Harvest operates within the territories of 24 Indigenous nations,” but has formal working agreements with only about 15 of them, and in the Broughton Archipelago has none.
“Very different relationship”
The First Nations argue, backed by a string of courtroom victories won since 2004, that the British Columbia and Canadian governments had no right to authorize Marine Harvest––or anyone else––to operate in First Nations waters without First Nations consent.
“North of the Broughton Archipelago,” Gies noted, “the Kitasoo/Xai’xais nation in the tiny town of Klemtu has a very different relationship with Marine Harvest. The company and nation have been partners since 1998.
“In the 1930s,” Gies recounted, “the nation leased land to a fish processing plant, where some Kitasoo/Xai’xais people worked until it shuttered in 1969. Unemployment soared, so the nation built its own plant in the 1980s to process wild-caught fish. But fish stocks were in decline, so in 1987 the nation started farming fish,” eventually in partnership
with Marine Harvest.
About the money, not the fish
Protesting First Nations leaders told Gies that they have no objection to the Kitasoo/Xai’xais arrangement, which was voluntarily reached.
By implication, then, the First Nations objection to the presence of the other Marine Harvest salmon farms is therefore less to their raising Atlantic salmon, rather than native strains, than to hosting businesses from which First Nations members derive little or no economic benefit.
“We don’t know”
Do Atlantic salmon, whether escaped from Cypress Island or still in sea pens along the Georgia Strait, “represent a serious threat to the Pacific ecosystem, both fresh and saltwater? The bottom line is we don’t know,” University of Victoria ecologist John Volpe told Ashley Braun of Scientific American.
“His research in neighboring British Columbia—where fish farming operations dwarf those of Washington—found evidence around the turn of the 21st century that escaped Atlantic salmon could survive in the wild and even reproduce in Vancouver Island rivers,” Braun wrote. “But almost two decades later Atlantic salmon are not considered established in the province, which has a wilder, more remote coastline than Washington’s. A recent report finds Canadian efforts to monitor B.C. salmon populations lacking.
“Another risk,” Braun mentioned, “is farmed fish transferring disease and parasites to wild salmon, a well-studied phenomenon that depends on factors including location, wild disease presence and ocean salinity.
“Healthy at time of release”
But, Braun noted, “Washington fish farms don’t consider sea lice—marine parasites known to pass between wild and farmed salmon—to be a major issue. In addition, Washington has no previous reports of Atlantic salmon successfully colonizing or spawning, despite earlier escapes. Interbreeding between the Atlantic and Pacific species also appears improbable.”
Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife veterinarian Jed Varney on September 7, 2017 reported that the 12 recaptured Atlantic salmon he was able to examine “appeared healthy at time of release,” with “no common bacterial, viral, or parasitic pathogens. Mortality data from Cooke has not been submitted as yet,” Varney noted, “but by verbal communication it did not appear that mortality was excessive or abnormal at release time.”
Observed Varney, “It does not appear that this species fares well long term in Puget Sound. This is a domesticated species that is adapted to hatchery conditions, much like our domestic rainbow trout stocks. Previous accidental releases in 1996, 1997, 1999 and others have not seen this species establish itself in Puget Sound.”
Nearly 25% waste
Meanwhile in Scotland, reported Rob Edwards of the Scottish Herald, “The Scottish fish farming industry has admitted that it threw away up to ten million salmon last year – nearly a quarter of its stock,” more than twice as many as in 2013 – “because of diseases, parasites and other problems.
“Unwanted mortalities at salmon farms have long been a problem,” Edwards wrote, “but in the last three years they have risen to record levels. There have been successive, significant increases in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The company that suffered the biggest losses was Marine Harvest. Over the same period, the Scottish Salmon Company, which is registered in the Channel Islands, saw its dead fish more than double to 5,873 metric tons.”
Charged National Trust for Scotland senior conservation adviser Richard Luxmoore, “The salmon farming industry has lost the ability to control fish diseases and this results in escalating quantities of toxic chemicals being poured into the sea in an increasingly fruitless attempt to control them. It also inevitably leads to the release of an infectious soup of disease organisms into our coastal waters.”
“Closed containment system”
Luxmoore urged the aquaculture industry to shift to a “closed containment system,” meaning that fish would be grown exclusively in on-land tanks, never to be in wild habitat at all, even within the confinement of sea pens. Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland has made the same demand, as have a variety of environmental and tribal organizations in the Pacific Northwest.
Scotland too has had recent Great Salmon Escapes.
“Since the beginning of 2016 over 328,000 Atlantic salmon have escaped from fish farms around Scotland,” says John F. Robins of Animal Concern and the Save Our Seals Fund Scotland.
“Many of these fish would have been bred from eggs imported from Norway,” Robins adds, “and their release could have devastating consequences on our native wild salmon.”
An often voiced but wholly hypothetical supposition, most often heard from mainstream conservationists, the notion of possible genetic displacement depends on the remote chance that an introduced species less well adapted to the habitat could somehow displace a better-adapted established species. Only if Scottish salmon habitat has changed in a manner making Norwegian salmon more “native” than the Scottish salmon could this occur.
“Toxic chemicals or powerful medicines”
Robins’ focal worry, however, is “Fish who escape after being treated with toxic chemicals or powerful medicines. Escaped farmed salmon are fairly easy to catch and could be dangerous if eaten,” Robins alleges. “A Scottish Government website lists details of where and when fish escapes occur but does not give any information on whether the fish have recently been treated with toxic pesticides or given medicines such as antibiotics. If fish escape soon after being treated for sea lice or illness, they are not safe to eat,” including for seals, other marine mammals, and other fish, as well as humans.
“I also want to know,” Robins adds, if any fish farmers have been prosecuted for letting intensively farmed fish escape into the wild.”
But is there any actual harm to animals involved?
From a humane or animal rights perspective, though, and if the salmon are healthy, is there any actual harm to animals involved if a small fraction of the numbers of Atlantic salmon who are raised in intensive confinement every now and then get a small taste of the life in the wild?
The issue could be argued back and forth, but has not been, because––whether in Scotland or Washington––almost no one is discussing the interests of the fish as individual sentient beings.