Fish Provenance Matters

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Lummi Nation fishermen work to capture Atlantic salmon that escaped an aquaculture pen near Cypress Island, in Washington State. Photograph by Brandon Sawaya / SOULCRAFT ALLSTARS

With big weather news recently holding our attention, it is easy to miss smaller scale natural disasters, so thanks to E. Tammy Kim for ensuring this story made it to our pages:

Washington State’s Great Salmon Spill and the Environmental Perils of Fish Farming

Just after the thrill of the total solar eclipse, a troubling nature story emerged from northwestern Washington State. On August 22nd, Cooke Aquaculture, a multibillion-dollar seafood company, reported that, three days earlier, extreme tides coinciding with the eclipse had torn apart its enormous salmon farm off Cypress Island, a teal idyll near the college town of Bellingham.More than three hundred thousand non-native Atlantic salmon, housed in a steel underwater pen, were at risk of escape. Tens of thousands of the fish had already spilled into Puget Sound, and some had begun to instinctively swim upstream, toward the mouths of local rivers, as if to spawn.

The eclipse, it turned out, had nothing to do with the accident, and Cooke soon abandoned it as an explanation. Within twenty-four hours of the pen’s collapse, the company notified “key personnel,” pursuant to a state-approved Fish Escape Prevention Plan. But it was the weekend, and Cooke employees only had office numbers on file. Several days passed before the company and state natural-resources officials hired a salvage team, set up a rapid-response center, and began encouraging recreational fishers to catch as many Atlantic salmon as possible. By then, a member of the Lummi Nation, for whom Pacific salmon are sacrosanct, had caught one of the stray Atlantics in Bellingham Bay. He called tribal elders with the news, triggering a disaster declaration on the part of the tribe. Lummi fishermen promptly took their boats to the Cooke aquaculture site and cast their nets, seining hundreds of disoriented escapees.

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Lummi fishers haul a catch ashore. Photograph by Aaron Straight

Jay Julius, a member of the Lummi tribal council and a commercial fisherman, had two boats on the scene at Cypress Island. For more than a week, he neglected his usual routes to net gleaming tons of Atlantic salmon and put them in cold storage. (Each adult weighs about ten pounds.) There was a chance that Julius and other Lummi fishers would be able to sell their haul back to Cooke, but it wasn’t about money, he told me. He had always opposed the thirty-year-old farm, which he saw as a threat to native king, silver, and chum salmon. He worried that the escaped Atlantics would spread disease, or compete for food or breeding grounds, undermining tribal efforts to rebuild wild stocks. He texted me a photo of a recent catch—a shiny Atlantic salmon whose mouth was bent downward, perpendicular to its head. “We don’t understand why anyone would want to eat these,” he said. “Their lips are folded over, they stink, they’re awful.”…

Read the whole post here.

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