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After Atlantic salmon spill, fish farms' future under attack on both sides of border

Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times on

Published in Outdoors

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific knew it had problems at its Cypress Island fish farm before the catastrophic failure that spilled tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.

"The farm site No. 2 was identified as the first priority for upgrades. We knew it was at the end of its life cycle and it needed upgrades right away, and we were in the process of doing that," company spokesman Chuck Brown said this week.

But the company never got the chance.

Instead, the farm capsized the weekend of Aug. 19, with 305,000 Atlantic salmon inside. The company collected 142,176 in all from its nets. The rest escaped.

Though evidence of damage to native fish runs is sparse, the accident has sparked an outcry to shut down the Atlantic salmon fish-farming industry in Washington. The state already has said it won't allow new or expanded farms until further review, and 20 Western Washington tribes with treaty-protected fisheries say they want Puget Sound farms shut down entirely.

It also comes as the industry is under intense scrutiny across the border in British Columbia. First Nations people on Aug. 25 began an occupation of a net pen farm at Swanson Island near Alert Bay, demanding permits be revoked for the farms in their local waters because of concern about disease, fish waste and parasites harming wild stocks.

This month, the occupation expanded to a second farm on the B.C. coast as the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw, led by Hereditary Chief Willie Moon, occupied another Marine Harvest salmon farm, off northeastern Vancouver Island. The move brought support from other tribal nations." This is an assertion of their authority in their traditional lands and waters," after the Cypress Island failure, said a statement by the chiefs of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council.

The Washington fish escape made waves at Shishalh Nation, too, where fishermen were surprised and alarmed to find three escaped Atlantic salmon in their nets on Aug. 27, in the Sabine Channel, 80 nautical miles from Cooke's spill. Two of the fish were females, full of eggs. The tribe opposes any farmed salmon in its waters.

In Washington, 20 tribes also said all Atlantic salmon farms in Puget Sound should be closed, with no more allowed.

"Just how many fish got loose is unknown. Their escape threatens our already weak stocks of native Pacific salmon as well as our treaty fishing rights," said a statement from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

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