By: Alexandra Chase, Ocean and Coastal Law Fellow, National Sea Grant Law Center

September 6, 2017

Approximately 162,000 farmed Atlantic salmon escaped into the Puget Sound when a net pen they were housed in experienced structural failure over the weekend of August 19-20, 2017.  Cooke Aquaculture acquired the Cypress Island fish farm in the summer of 2016 and was planning to replace the aging and derelict cage system after the fall harvest.

The escaped Atlantic salmon have already spread into every river in the Puget Sound and to distances as great as 150 miles from Cypress Island, including into Tribal and Canadian waters. Tribes and environmental groups are concerned that the non-native Atlantic salmon will have devastating effects on populations of native Pacific salmon, steelhead salmon, and endangered Puget Sound Chinook.  Fueling these concerns are the condition of the recovered Atlantic salmon. Fishermen have reported catching escaped fish with stomachs full of Pacific salmon fingerlings and the females full of eggs and ready to spawn in Pacific salmon breeding grounds.

The Cypress Island spill is raising serious questions about the future of salmon farming in the Pacific Northwest. The Washington Department of Natural Resources has issued a moratorium on the permitting of new farms, or allowing expansions of existing Atlantic salmon structures, while it is investigating the salmon spill. Twenty Native American tribes in Western Washington are calling for a cessation on all fish farming in the Puget Sound.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is asking the public to catch as many Atlantic salmon as possible and has removed all harvest restrictions with respect to size or number.  As the recovery process to contain the escaped salmon and restrict the damage to local populations remains ongoing, the legal and policy questions about the salmon aquaculture industry are likely to continue to grow.

Action is already underway to bring these questions to court. On August 24th, 2017, the Wild Fish Conservancy provided notice of intent to sue Cooke Aquaculture in a citizen enforcement suit for violations of the Clean Water Act.  A copy of the notice of intent to sue is available here.