There could be a major ecological impact to the coastal waters stretching from British Columbia to Oregon after an Atlantic salmon farm near the San Juan Islands, just east of Victoria, accidentally spilled thousands of live fish into local waters.
The incident occurred on Saturday afternoon at a facility owned and operated by Canadian-based Cooke Aquaculture. According to reports, up to 305,000 adult Atlantic salmon – each weighing 10 lbs – may have escaped from the pens in the ocean water.
Atlantic salmon are an invasive species in the Pacific Northwest, and could threaten local species, particularly salmon native to BC, by predating on native juvenile fish, transferring diseases, breeding with native species, and competing for the same food sources.
In response to the incident, Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is urging the public to catch as many fish as possible, without any stipulation on limit on the size or number.
Their Canadian counterparts, the federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), have not issued any fishery notices over the nearby spill at this time.
A spokesperson for the DFO told Daily Hive the department has not received any calls to its Atlantic Salmon Watch Program (ASWP) hotline since the incident occurred.
Atlantic salmon in BC waters
The ASWP specifically monitors BC rivers for escaped Atlantic salmon, and DFO records show there have only been a handful of reports made to the ASWP over the last few years.
Most farmed fish incidents in BC involve just a single fish escape, and the largest escape last year occurred in April when 20 Atlantic salmon weighing about 10 lbs escaped after an equipment failure during harvest and transfer.
The ASWP relies on commercial and recreational fishers, fish processors, government and independent field staff, and hatchery workers to report observations of Atlantic salmon.
Critics of farmed Atlantic salmon have long hypothesized that the fish could escape from their net pens and successfully reproduce in BC rivers.
However, the DFO says its ASWP periodically conducts field surveys to determine if Atlantic salmon are present in coastal BC, but its findings to date show no evidence of established Atlantic salmon populations in the wild. It remains to be seen whether this will change following the large spill in Washington State.
Anyone who believes they have caught an Atlantic salmon in BC waters is asked to keep the fish and report the capture to the ASWP toll-free 24-hour hotline at 1-800-811-6010.
How to distinguish Atlantic salmon from Pacific salmon
The DFO says the main difference in appearance between Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon is that Atlantic salmon have black spots on the cover of their gills.