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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

1 million Atlantic salmon smolts headed to Puget Sound pens over state’s objections

Allen Cooke, left, and Nathan Cultee emerge from the hold of the Marathon on Aug. 22, 2017 after having separated out the 16 farm-raised Atlantic salmon they caught fishing off Point Williams, Wash. (Dean Rutz / Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – An international company that “farms” Atlantic salmon in the Puget Sound will put 1 million of the young fish into pens near Tacoma despite a request from state officials to keep them out.

The state has a moratorium on new fish pens after the failure of the Cooke Aquaculture Pacific pen in the San Juan Islands in August, but the company would be sending the young salmon, known as smolts, to different pens with existing permits.

State officials say the company is exploiting a “loophole” in the law, even as an investigation into the collapse is underway.

“This is disappointing and frustrating, coming on the heels of the August collapse of Cooke’s net pen near Cypress Island that held 305,000 fish,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release Tuesday. “My office has asked Cooke to do the right thing – for our tribes, our citizens, for our environment and for the industry’s long-term prospects – and withdraw their request.”

An attorney for Cooke said the company has no choice, that unless the smolts are moved from their fresh water hatchery to salt water, they’ll die. The fish have been inspected to ensure they aren’t carrying disease, Amalia Walton wrote in a letter to Inslee Chief of Staff David Postman, which is all that’s required for what she called a routine transfer permit.

“However, Cooke realizes that these are not normal circumstances and has been working closely with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to assure the department that there is not only no risk of disease but that the pens at Clam Bay are secure from any risk of potential escape,” Walton wrote.

They are not the pens that collapsed in another part of the Sound, she added. To a suggestion that the smolts be moved to net pens in British Columbia, Walton said the company doesn’t have any there.

In mid August, a Cypress Island pen collapsed and more than half the 305,000 Atlantic salmon escaped into the Sound, where state officials and environmentalists worried they would harm the native Pacific salmon returning to spawn. The 147,000 that didn’t escape the pen were turned into fertilizer, and some 60,000 of the escapees were pulled from the Sound as state and tribal fishing agencies encouraged people to catch as many as possible.

“The broad public outcry surrounding this net pen failure is understandable,” Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz said in the joint press release issued with Inslee. “So is the lack of confidence in how Cooke responded to the emergency, the recovery of fish and the management of future operations the company may pursue here in our waters.”

Cori Simmons, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources, said the remaining Atlantic salmon that escaped from the Cypress Island pen are thought to either have died or been eaten by predators by now. The salmon weighed about 10 pounds when they escaped, but those caught two weeks later were down to about 7 pounds and by now they likely have starved.

That’s because farm-raised salmon apparently don’t know how to eat in the wild. In her letter to Inslee’s staff, Walton said the stomachs of 500 escaped fish were caught, and all were empty.

“Farmed salmon learn that ‘food’ is in the form of pellets that drop from above at regular intervals, and as a result, when released into the wild prove incompetent at feeding themselves,” she wrote.

The state is investigating the cause of the Cypress Island net pen collapse, which Cooke initially attributed to tides connected with the solar eclipse. Critics noted, however, the pen collapsed two days before the eclipse and the tides weren’t particularly high at that point. Cooke is also seeking a permit to expand its fish farming operation in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Washington and Vancouver Island.

Jaime Smith, communications director for Inslee, said when that investigation is completed later this year a “larger conversation” about the future of net pens, involving tribes, environmental groups, state agencies and businesses will be expected. Some changes to state law could be proposed in the 2018 Legislature.

“The focus for now is on getting the investigation complete,” Smith said.