Fish farm with 300,000 Atlantic salmon collapses in San Juan Islands

by: Graham Johnson Updated:

BELLINGHAM, Wash. - A fish pen containing 305,000 farmed Atlantic salmon collapsed over the weekend in the San Juan Islands, raising fears about the potential that native Pacific salmon will be negatively impacted.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said early estimates are that between 4,000 and 5,000 fish escaped the damaged pen off Cypress Island when it first became compromised Saturday.

The farm's owner, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, said the farm then collapsed entirely Sunday, trapping most of the fish inside.

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Cooke Aquaculture Pacific said high tidal fluctuations and currents of around 3.5 knots, coinciding with the solar eclipse, led an anchor to give way.

>> RELATED: Photos show the progressing Total Solar Eclipse from the path of totality in Madras, Oregon. 

Nell Halse, the company's vice president for communications, said the Cypress Island facility had a problem with structural integrity in July in strong current but that the problem had been fixed.

Atlantic Salmon file photo. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Hans-Petter Fjeld (CC-BY-SA)

Tide charts show stronger tidal fluctuations at other times of year, particularly November, when there are also typically stronger winds.  

Halse acknowledged that people have reacted skeptically to the company's connecting the eclipse to the currents but said the conditions over the weekend were the worst veteran aquaculture workers have seen.

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific purchased the pen recently. Halse said the pen was due to be rebuilt to the company's standards, but that nothing like the collapse was expected.

State officials encourage recreational anglers to catch the salmon, which are about 8-10 pounds each.

The state says there is no size or catch limit for Atlantic salmon. An identification guide for Atlantic salmon can be found here.

>> RELATED: Strange sea creatures in northwest waters ‘concerning' scientists

Fish farms in Washington and British Columbia are a major concern for advocates of the environment.

"You simply do not want these salmon farms in Washington waters or anywhere near Washington waters," said Captain Paul Watson, of Sea Shepherd. "They're causing too many problems transmitting diseases and parasites to wild salmon populations."

Both the company and state officials did not expect disease to be transferred to native salmon because the farmed fish are considered healthy.

Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for WDFW, said the farmed salmon had not received meal that contained antibiotics for more than a year.

"That's a good indicator of a good healthy lot of fish," Warren said.

Warren expects the fish will make their way to fresh water areas, particularly in north Puget Sound, but predicted the biggest native impact on local wild salmon would be new competition for food.

He said there was no evidence that Atlantic salmon have successfully interbred with native wild salmon in Western Washington, but that "we don't like to test that theory."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that the agency reviews fish farm structure applications to make sure they don't interfere with navigation.

Agency officials planned to retrieve files on the Cypress Island pen for KIRO 7 on Wednesday.

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