Lummi Battle Atlantic Salmon Spill

Featured image: Still from video showing the broken pens of 300,000 Atlantic salmon that escaped from a fish farm off Cypress Island in Washington State. Vimeo/Wild Fish Conservancy

The Lummi Nation, the third largest tribe in Washington State, is in a state of emergency following the structural collapse of the Cooke Aquaculture open net-pen facility near Puget Sound. The breach released more than 300,000 farmed Atlantic salmon into Pacific waters, adjacent to Cypress Island, just east of the Canadian border near Victoria B.C.

State officials announced over the weekend that no new permits would be issued for fish farm operations until the cause of the incident was determined. Lummi Nation Fisheries have been catching thousands of Atlantic salmon alongside wild Pacific salmon for several days, but officials still believe many of the invasive fish are already on their way to spawn in local streams and rivers. Tribal fishermen have hauled in at least 200,000 pounds of invasive Atlantic salmon since the emergency declaration, the Lummi said on Monday August 28.

“This disaster could have devastating effects and could potentially decimate this year’s run of Chinook salmon,” said Lummi Natural Resources Director Merle Jefferson. “This is unacceptable for all residents of the Puget Sound. We are doing what we can to help limit the damage, but as far as we know, containment is indefinite. These invasive fish are going to find our rivers.”

Kurt Beardslee, director of the Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest (WFCN) called the incident an environmental disaster and is preparing to file a civil suit against Cooke Aquaculture under section 505 of the Clean Water Act.

“This dangerous and reckless industry not only threatens the recovery of our native salmon and orca populations but also threatens the health of Puget Sound and the Northwest’s cultural identity,” Beardslee said in a WFCN press release.

Following the failure of the net-pen that contained 305,000 Atlantic salmon, Cooke Aquaculture cited the “exceptionally high tides” caused by the August 21 solar eclipse as the reason for the breech at its facility. In a statement, Cooke Aquaculture said its Cypress Farm #2, which contained the Atlantic salmon, had been in operation for almost 30 years without incident. In addition the company cited its “solid track record” in modern marine farming at several locations across the globe, including facilities in Maine, Scotland, Spain and Chile.

“It is estimated that several thousand Atlantic salmon escaped following a structural failure of part of the net-pen structure on the Cypress Site 2 farm,” Cooke Aquaculture said in the statement. “It appears that many fish are still contained within the nets. It will not be possible to confirm exact numbers of fish losses until harvesting is completed and an inventory of fish in the pens has been conducted.”

However, tides were almost a foot higher last January than on the evening of the solar eclipse, NPR reported. This left Beardslee “bewildered by the company’s claim that the solar eclipse presented a tidal occurrence that they could not have prepared for,” he said.

Emergency maintenance was performed on the Cypress Island net-pens on July 27, which further calls into question the company’s claim that high tides during the solar eclipse were the cause of the facility’s structural failure. Washington State officials released a guide to help fishermen identify the Atlantic salmon and how to contain them if caught. In addition, Governor Jay Inslee put a hold on new net-pen permits “until a thorough investigation of this incident is completed,” he said in a statement.

“Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again,” Inslee said. “I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters.”

The Quinault Indian Nation said this was a good start, but did not do enough to recognize the threat posed by farmed Atlantic salmon, which is being done with profit rather than health in mind.

“We have been objecting to the open-water farming of Atlantic salmon for years,” said Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp in a statement. “The disaster near Cypress Island seems to have finally generated a strong response from the state. We’re glad about that. But we want the state and the public to know it’s a serious problem here, too.”

North of the U.S.–Canada border, environmental groups in British Columbia are sounding the alarm once again over the farming of non-native Atlantic salmon in Pacific waters, which could potentially devastate an area that still sees some of the largest wild Pacific salmon runs in the world. Watershed Watch Salmon Society, an environmental organization based out of Coquitlam B.C., called the incident “an epic disaster.” They’re asking anglers to be on the lookout for Atlantic salmon in streams and rivers on the southern edge of Vancouver Island and have renewed calls to end the use of fish farms on the Pacific Coast.

Canada’s federal Department of Fisheries and Ocean (DFO) said the Liberal government is taking the case very seriously and is closely monitoring the situation.

“We will be working to understand the potential impacts of this incident and prevent any damage to Canada’s marine ecosystems, said Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Dominic LeBlanc in a statement. “DFO is communicating with its U.S. counterparts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other U.S. regulators to help ensure impacts from the incident are minimized.”

The recently formed British Columbia New Democratic Party (NDP) government said in an e-mail it was aware of the situation and would be working closely with DFO. So far no Atlantic salmon have been recovered in Canadian waters. However, government officials are asking B.C. residents to report any and all Atlantic salmon caught in Canadian waters through its Atlantic Salmon Watch Program.

British Columbians have been debating the risk of fish farms for decades. Due to conservation efforts and lobbying in the early 2000s, no fish farms are currently operating along B.C.’s North Coast. However, the Cooke Aquaculture breech is renewing calls to shut down all fish farms along the province’s south coast, which have long been opposed by local First Nations.

Over the years First Nations along the south coast of Vancouver Island have repeatedly called for an end to open net-pen fish farms, claiming they breed diseased, unnatural salmon that can transmit viruses to wild populations and hinder First Nations’ ability to operate food fisheries. Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Vice President Bob Chamberlin said First Nations have a legal right to practice their traditional ways to gather sustenance from the land, including wild salmon.

“If the government of B.C. and Canada continue to ignore the impacts of open net-pen aquaculture on wild salmon, then we are looking to an imminent future without the constitutionally protected wild salmon food source critical to First Nations in B.C., and without a once proud economic driver that our wild salmon fisheries provide to indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike,” he said.

Following the release to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) of video showing deformed and diseased Atlantic salmon in open net-pens operated by Grieg Seafood, Hereditary Chief Ernest Alfred of the Nagmis, Lawit’sis and Mamalilikala Nations began occupying a facility near Swanson Island near Vancouver Island, planning to stay until the operation is shut down indefinitely.

“This place is ours, and we’re not moving,” Alfred wrote in a Facebook post. “We must stop open-net fish farms in our waters. It’s time to stand up and take a stand.”

The issue undermines attempts at reconciliation between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government, Alfred continued.

“You can’t ignore the issue of rights and title, which are clearly being violated here,” said Alfred. “You have politicians traveling the country talking about reconciliation. How can we have reconciliation when we have this disease running through our territory?”

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