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Washington state urges broad Atlantic salmon catch after fish escape pen

The state of Washington is calling all fishermen to catch unlimited farmed Atlantic salmon with no size or weight limits after a net pen broke last week, allowing thousands of the non-native fish to escape into the open ocean.

The pen, in the state's northwestern San Juan Islands, contained about 305,000 Atlantic salmon and is owned by Cooke Aquaculture, according to NPR.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources said it is working with other state agencies, local Indian tribes and Cooke Aquaculture to discover an accurate timeline of events, as well as the scale of the release, but estimates that 4,000 to all 305,000 fish have escaped.

The timing is particularly bad because native wild salmon are going up to spawn, meaning farmed salmon will follow them, Riley Starks, a commercial fisherman helping to try to catch the fish, told the network.

“And, they've been fed antibiotics, they have diseases,” he said. “They were being treated for yellow mouth disease when they spilled, and the first ones we caught definitely had yellow mouth. Pharmaceutical pollution and diseases is the worst of it. But also competition for food up the river and competition for spawning, like when a wild Chinook goes up and lays their eggs, an Atlantic could come right behind it and eat the eggs or sweep them away. So it's a dangerous situation and we shouldn't have to deal with it. We think these fish should not be in the environment. We don't think they're safe for consumption.”

Though emphasizing he is not an expert in salmon, Spud Woodward, director of the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has spent eight years as chief of marine fisheries management and 14 years as a marine fisheries biologist in the region.

For years there have been concerns about the effects of hatchery-reared native species on their wild kin, Woodward said.

“Add to this already complicated situation the aquaculture industry in the Pacific Northwest using a non-native species like Atlantic salmon,” Woodward told Trade Only in an email.

“There is no doubt that the escape of fish from the Cooke Aquaculture facility is bad,” he said. “Just how bad is hard to say. These hatchery-reared fish do not have the survival skills of the native species, so one can hope that between fishermen, seals and other predators they are removed quickly and do little damage to wild salmon populations.”

The escape is proving to be a catalyst for renewed debate as to whether aquaculture of a non-native salmonid in an area where some runs of salmon are already in jeopardy is good public policy, he said.

“I suspect that politics and economics will influence this debate as much as fish biology,” Woodward said.

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