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Know the West

How a salmon farm disaster changed Northwest aquaculture forever

Thousands of salmon escaped into the Puget Sound. Then the controversy began.

“Skagit 911. What is your emergency?”

“I’m not quite sure if this is a 911 emergency or not, but my husband and I are on our boat in Secret Harbor, and the middle fish pen is breaking apart, and we don’t know who to call,” Jill Davenport told the 911 operator for the police in Skagit County, about a hundred miles north of Seattle, Washington. 

“What do you mean by the middle fish pen?” the operator asked. 

“In Secret Harbor, on Cypress Island, there’s three fish pens,” Davenport explained calmly. “There’s a bunch of equipment and stuff that, like a forklift and generators and stuff, that are potentially going into the water. And we don’t see any humans around. It’s huge, and the whole thing is buckling. There’s a forklift that looks like it’s about ready to go in the water.”

“We are passing that information along,” the operator replied. 

 

Davenport and her husband, Jeff, were on their way with their young children to set crab pots off Cypress Island, a largely undeveloped island in Puget Sound about halfway between the mainland and offshore San Juan County, at around 3 in the afternoon on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. As they approached Cypress Island, they heard a loud clank from one of the three salmon farms. They turned and saw a thick chain drag across the metal walkway linking the 10 cages that formed one of the farms. As they watched, the underside of a cage rose out of the water, its nets covered with a thick layer of mussels and kelp. Davenport thought to herself, “When you see seaweed, something is seriously wrong.”

The farms were known as Sites 1, 2 and 3. They consisted of floating steel rafts linking 10 individual cages, arranged in two rows of five cages each. The floating collection of cages, known as net pens, was held in place by a mooring system composed of chains and ropes attached to concrete anchors on the seabed. Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian company, had acquired the farms and five others in Puget Sound off the Washington state coast a year earlier. Already the dominant salmon farmer in Maine and New Brunswick and active in Chile and Scotland, Cooke was executing its plan for a major expansion in the Pacific Northwest. Cooke had grown aggressively to become the largest privately owned salmon-farming company in the world, but that drive to dominance was about to hit a roadblock.

“When you see seaweed, something is seriously wrong.”

The current was dragging the entire assemblage south, threatening to pull apart all 10 cages and the metal structure holding them together. Davenport turned her phone toward the farm and took video footage of the buckling cages. She could not see beneath the water, where some of the 10 anchor lines holding the farm to the seafloor were breaking loose, but the entire farm appeared to be on the verge of collapse. The landscape of salmon farming in Puget Sound was about to change dramatically.

THE SLABS OF REDDISH FLESH you’ve seen at the grocery store seafood counter have nothing to do with pristine waters or muscular salmon navigating upstream and everything to do with the industrialization of food in today’s world. Once upon a time, millions of wild salmon seasonally surged up rivers along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to spawn. In the places they’ve been historically abundant, they became the backbone of people’s lives, including for Indigenous people in North America.

Today, 90% of the salmon consumed by North Americans is farmed Atlantic salmon, raised in floating feedlots in Canada, Scotland, Norway, the United States and Chile; the remaining 10% is mostly wild-caught Pacific salmon from Alaska, one of the few places where wild salmon are still fished commercially. Farming Atlantic salmon in the Northwest threatens one of the few remaining strongholds for wild salmon. 

It’s not the first threat salmon have faced. Beginning during the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, waste was dumped directly into rivers and streams, and the seemingly inexhaustible stocks of salmon began to decline across Europe. By the mid-1800s, numbers were reduced further by commercial fishing and the construction of dams and mills that destroyed habitats and blocked salmon rivers. In recent decades, the climate crisis has warmed the oceans and rivers, industrial and municipal pollution has poisoned waterways, deforestation and chemicals like DDT have spoiled habitats, and intensive overfishing has decimated wild populations. 

And in the past 40 years, a new threat emerged in the form of industrial-scale salmon farms in fragile coastal regions along salmon migration routes. The primary means of farming salmon is in large cages suspended in the ocean, known as open-net farms. Once seen as a means of taking pressure off overfished wild salmon, these farms turned out to pose a new, man-made danger. 

These floating feedlots have made salmon one of the world’s most popular and inexpensive fish and have created a $20 billion global industry. In Asia, North America, the United Kingdom and Europe, what was once a luxury in restaurants or reserved for special occasions at home is eaten at millions of meals a day. A decade ago, salmon replaced tuna as the most popular fish in the American diet, second only to shrimp in seafood consumption.

But availability and cheapness come at great cost. What you consume today is not your parents’ salmon; instead, it is bred to grow fast, raised in crowded pens, and fed a diet of dried pellets made from smaller fish and grains and laced with chemicals. Industrial-scale farms in coves and bays off the coasts of Norway, Scotland, Chile and Canada harbor millions of salmon in cages. Along the Northern coasts of the U.S., Cooke Aquaculture has bought up similar farms and sought opportunities to expand operations.

These floating feedlots have made salmon one of the world’s most popular and inexpensive fish and have created a $20 billion global industry.

Wild salmon are a barometer of the planet’s health. They can survive only in clean, cool water, and their presence in a river has traditionally signaled to anglers that the water is safe to drink. They embody the idea of a keystone species, the animal whose existence holds the rest of the ecosystem together. If they disappear, it’s a threat to more than just recreational fishing. It’s a sign that life on Earth as we know it is changing in drastic ways.

The only barrier between the farms’ cages and the wild salmon outside is a net that allows the ocean to flush the pens. Excess feed, chemical residue and fecal matter form a layer of slime on the seabed below the farms, smothering marine life and plants. Parasites and pathogens proliferate in the crowded cages and spread disease to wild fish. Hundreds of thousands of farmed fish escape each year, competing with wild salmon for habitat and food and interbreeding to produce hybrid fish too weak to survive. Quite simply, the rise of salmon farms demonstrates the hubris in, and the price to be paid for, transforming a natural biological process into an industrial operation.

ABOUT 15 MINUTES AFTER Jill Davenport’s 911 call, as their boat idled near the unfolding disaster, she spotted a worker and called out to him. He waved and shouted that he had called his boss and that help was on the way. A few minutes earlier, Daniel Farias, the lone weekend worker, had telephoned Sky Guthrie, the site manager, and urgently told Guthrie that walkways at Cypress Site 2 were buckling. He said he thought the entire structure could break loose and collide with one of the two other 10-cage farms in the cove. 

“It’s really bad,” Farias said. 

Guthrie got to the farm about 20 minutes later. Immediately, he knew his co-worker had underestimated the situation. Walkways had twisted; some were submerged. Equipment had fallen into the water, and the large generator that provided electricity to the site was about to slide into the sound. A metal footbridge linking a floating office to the 10 cages had broken loose. Nets were close to tearing open, about to send tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon into waters that were home to Pacific salmon. More workers arrived shortly after. Guthrie got back on the phone and tried urgently to hire tugboats to stop the slowly drifting site from breaking apart completely and colliding with the two other farms, which were a few hundred yards away and filled with thousands of fish. 

Just as onlookers cannot take their eyes off a train wreck, the Davenports watched from their boat as workers struggled to pull two portions of the heavily damaged middle cage out of the water. The Lindsey Foss, one of the first tugboats to arrive, got there a few hours after Davenport’s call. It maneuvered in order to swing in close to the pen, so workers could attach a line to the steel structure and allow the tug to try to pull the farm back into shape. As the Lindsey Foss neared the farm, its captain peered into the water from the ship’s bridge. He saw nets below the surface heavily clogged with mussels, kelp and seaweed. Instead of allowing water to pass through the cages, the fouling had turned the nets into massive sails that were being pushed by the current and tide. The bigger the blockage, the larger the sails and the greater the chance of the site breaking loose entirely from its anchor cables. 

The risks of clogged nets were well known among salmon farmers and state officials in Puget Sound. Those risks were the reason Cooke’s lease with the state required the company to maintain its farms in clean and safe condition, with regular inspections and net cleanings. Later reports would show that the accumulation had occurred over many weeks.

A second tug soon joined the Lindsey Foss and began pulling from another direction to try to hold the farm together. The second tug lowered a boom to the deck of the farm and lifted away the forklift, which had been perilously close to going into the water. 

While she and her husband watched the drama unfold, Davenport received calls from the county emergency services office, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Coast Guard. Everyone wanted to know how bad things were. Bad, she replied. Davenport had the impression that the officials on the other end of the calls did not understand the size of the salmon farm or the potential environmental danger. She had emailed photos to the Coast Guard at about 4:30 p.m., but hadn’t seen any government vessels by 7 p.m., when the family headed home. 

Guthrie and his crew worked alongside the two tugs through the night. Early Sunday morning, the structure was stable enough for workers to begin removing salmon from the damaged cages by hand. Divers were sent down to try to reattach the mooring chains that had broken loose from the anchors. But when the tide came in, more chains broke loose, the heavily fouled nets dragged along the bottom, and twisted walkways flipped as the site shifted position completely. Two cages tore open as the stress on the nets mounted … then four … then six. The site was no longer safe. The workers were ordered off. While the tugs struggled to avoid a total collapse, the effort turned into a salvage operation. Guthrie and his coworkers watched helplessly as tens of thousands of farmed salmon began escaping into Puget Sound. Site 2 was destroyed. 

LEADERS OF THE LUMMI NATION, the original inhabitants of the northernmost coast of Washington, immediately recognized the threat posed by the escaped Atlantic salmon. About 5,000 tribal members live on the Lummi Reservation, which sits on a peninsula across from the island about 100 miles north of Seattle. The tribe’s director of natural resources, Merle Jefferson, says, “The Lummi are salmon people; salmon is culture, and culture is salmon.” The decline of wild salmon endangers Lummi culture and livelihoods, and the tribe has been involved in many efforts to protect and restore the fish. They declared an emergency and urged tribal fishermen to catch as many Atlantic salmon as possible to protect the native species from disease, interbreeding and simply being eaten by the invaders. 

Meanwhile, some state officials appeared unable to decide whether the escaped Atlantic salmon posed a threat to wild Pacific salmon. On Aug. 23, the Department of Fish and Wildlife encouraged anglers to catch as many of the escaped Atlantic salmon as they could, to protect wild salmon, and they asked fishermen to report the number caught and their location. The alien fish were easy to spot because they are larger than their Pacific cousins and have distinctive black spots on their backs. In the same press release, however, the head of the department’s fish program, Ron Warren, contradicted any suggestion that Atlantic salmon posed a threat to native fish. Warren said no evidence existed that the Atlantic salmon were a danger to the Pacific salmon and that there was no record of the two species interbreeding in Washington’s waters. 

“The Lummi are salmon people; salmon is culture, and culture is salmon.”

Despite Warren’s attempt to smooth the waters, the danger posed by farmed salmon to wild salmon cannot be dismissed so easily. Wild Pacific salmon and farmed Atlantic salmon are genetically different. Wild salmon have adapted over generations to changes in local river conditions like temperature, flow rates and acidity levels in the water. Farmed fish, however, have been bred for fast growth in a closed environment, not for their ability to adapt. The negative effects of this divergence are well documented. Studies have shown that the interbreeding of farmed salmon with wild salmon lowers the fitness of the hybrid offspring, weakens their ability to survive, and eventually reduces the overall wild population. 

Another risk that farmed Atlantic salmon pose to wild Pacific salmon is the spread of parasites, viruses, and diseases not found in the native salmon or in the waters in which they swim. For example, a study published in Virology Journal after the Cypress Island collapse estimated that 95% of the escaped Atlantic salmon were infected with an exotic variant of piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV, which had never been documented previously in Puget Sound waters. PRV causes heart and skeletal inflammation in salmon, which can lead to death. The virus apparently came from salmon eggs imported from Iceland. A different study by a team of Canadian scientists, including from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, determined that the virus arrived in the northwestern Pacific around 30 years ago, roughly the same time the first salmon farms showed up in British Columbia. The study said that evidence showed the virus had been transmitted from farmed salmon to wild Pacific salmon, where the disease had never been found before.

EVENTS UNFOLDED QUICKLY in the days after the failure of Cypress Island Site 2, creating a tsunami of challenges for Cooke Aquaculture. Facing a public outcry and government investigations, Cooke denied responsibility for the incident and instead blamed natural causes. The company also downplayed the number of escaped fish and their potential impact on wild salmon. 

A solar eclipse occurred on Aug. 21, two days after the start of the collapse. Cooke claimed that it was the high tides and currents leading up to the eclipse that had torn apart the farm. “Tides and currents and tidal surges in the last weeks have been very strong,” Nell Halse, Cooke’s vice president of communications, said on Aug. 21. “Our people are out there every day, and that is what they have been seeing. The tides were extremely high, the current 3.5 knots. People can believe it or not.” When it came to the wild Pacific salmon population’s imperilment by the escaped fish, Halse was dismissive. “It’s primarily a business loss,” she said. “The salmon will be food for the seals, and the fishermen can enjoy them.” 

The same day, the company filed its first official report on the escape of the salmon with the state, estimating that “upwards of 4,000 fish may have escaped.”

Cooke’s initial attempt to point the finger at the eclipse fell apart for the simple reason that the tides were not unusually robust when the Cypress Island site collapsed. When she was on the scene in her boat, Jill Davenport saw no indication that the tides were responsible. “It has been suggested that the implosion was caused by unusual tides and currents,” she wrote in an unpublished letter to her local newspaper in Anacortes, Washington. “Since we were right next to the pens and not experiencing anything abnormal, I don’t believe either to be a legitimate cause.” Tidal data and scientists also debunked Cooke’s attempt to blame high tides and currents.

In addition, the farm’s location, in a protected bay only a few hundred yards from shore, diminished any tidal effects. The tide was strongest farther out in the channel. Adding to the dubiousness of the company’s explanation, the site had broken apart before the strongest tides arrived with the eclipse on the 21st. Later, the state would declare that professionally designed and maintained salmon pens should have been able to withstand much stronger tides than those recorded on Aug. 19 and 20. 

Even as Cooke was forced to back away from its claim that the solar eclipse was to blame, it refused to acknowledge that tens of thousands of fish had escaped. 

IN THE DAYS AFTER THE FARM FAILED, hundreds of Atlantic salmon were caught in Puget Sound and nearby rivers and streams. Many anglers reported seeing large numbers swimming free in the water. “Fish continue to hug the beach in large schools,” one angler told the state. “They seem to prefer staying in the sheltered bays.” Ten fish were spotted near Lummi Island, 8 miles from the collapse. Seals and eagles were feasting on dead Atlantic salmon that had washed ashore all along the coast of the sound.

On one day of fishing, Lummi fishermen at the mouth of the Nooksack River, north of Seattle and far from Cypress Bay, landed dozens of Atlantic salmon that appeared to have been deformed or damaged in the farm’s collapse. When some of the salmon were sliced open, the Lummi found enlarged and discolored organs: signs of disease. These were clearly alien fish that threatened the native salmon. In total, tribal fishers from Lummi and Samish First Nations caught 55,000 Atlantic salmon in an organized effort to stop the fish before they entered rivers and streams on tribal land.

In the wake of Cypress Island, Cooke Aquaculture faced sharp scrutiny of its safety practices. As part of a settlement to dismiss a lawsuit brought by local conservation nonprofits, Cooke agreed to pay $2.75 million, in part to fund projects to protect wild fish in Puget Sound. It also agreed to upgrade its remaining facilities before restocking its remaining farms. In response to the public’s outcry over the collapse, the Washington Legislature passed a law to phase out open-net salmon farming in the state, bringing its policies in line with the rest of the West Coast.

Still, impacts of the Cypress Island collapse will ripple across generations of salmon. Weeks later, Atlantic salmon were found 130 miles south, near Tacoma, and 250 miles north, near Vancouver Island in British Columbia. In several places, Atlantic salmon were caught with small native salmon in their bellies. The mass escape from Cypress Island had coincided with spawning season.   

This story is excerpted from Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, to be published this month by Henry Holt and Company and used with permission.

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This coverage was supported by contributors to High Country News.

Note: This story was updated to clarify that the Washington state legislature is phasing out open-net salmon farming in the state, not all open-net farming.