Flickr/Eric Kilby
Authorities in Washington are telling people to catch as many Atlantic salmon as they can. The environmental implications may be significant.

Environment Farm Going Rogue

When the moon eclipsed the sun on Monday afternoon, cicadas chirped. Flowers closed. Hummingbirds changed their tune. And in the furthest reaches of the northwestern United States, thousands (and potentially hundreds of thousands) of salmon escaped their ocean pen to wreak havoc on the waters of Washington.

Though it seems like the type of farmyard mutiny fable that turns children into vegetarians (lookin’ at you, Chicken Run), the salmon didn’t actually conspire to break free from their netting as the lights went out on Cooke Aquaculture near Cypress Island, Washington. Rather, the anchor lines broke on Saturday as eclipse-related high tides and currents swirled around the farm, according to a statement released by the company and reported in the Seattle Times.

Local fishermen are concerned the Atlantic salmon will compete with Chinook salmon for food and breeding grounds.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is telling people to catch as many salmon as possible, according to the Times. Most of the escaped fish are in the ten-pound range, and it’s not yet known how many of the roughly 305,000 Atlantic salmon made it into open water.

Other fishermen and environmentalists were quick to doubt the farm’s eclipse story, pointing out that the currents on Saturday weren’t much higher than normal. NPR reported data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) showing the tide was actually three inches below the forecast. And a Wild Fish Conservancy statement (also reported in the Times) added fuel to the fire: Another one of the farm’s net pens broke just a month ago, requiring emergency repairs.

The NOAA classified “escape” as an “issue carrying very little or no risk” in a 2001 report.

In response, Cooke spokeswoman Nell Halse told the Times that the company had planned to replace some of the equipment after the fish were harvested and had been awaiting permits.

Regardless of whether or not the solar eclipse was responsible for the Great Salmon Escape, some argue the release of domestically raised salmon into wild waters is cause for environmental concern. These salmon typically thrive in the Atlantic Ocean, and they’ve just been released into the Pacific. If they’re able to stay alive, the presence of Atlantic salmon could mean bad news for their Pacific neighbors.

As NPR reported, local fishermen, including members of the Lummi Nation, who have fished local Chinook salmon in the Pacific for generations, are concerned the Atlantic salmon will compete with Chinook salmon for food and breeding grounds.

In her interview, Halse dismissed those concerns, and added that the escape was primarily a business loss, since the Atlantic salmon will likely die in open waters. (They’re accustomed to being fed every day. Imagine a farm-fattened chicken trying to make it on its own in the wild.) Also somewhat reassuring: the NOAA classified “escape” as an “issue carrying very little or no risk” in a 2001 report on the net pen salmon farming industry in the Pacific Northeast—apparently, farm salmon in the wild make pretty easy prey.

There’s also some concern that escaped salmon can spread sea lice or disease. G.I. James, a member of the Lummi Natural Resources staff and fish commission, told the Seattle Times the Chinook population is having a hard enough time without additional threats from Atlantic salmon. “As dire a shape as they are in, right now any impact to them is difficult to absorb,” he said.

According to that NOAA report, just 2,500 of the estimated 600,000 farmed fish that escaped between 1996 and 1999 were ever recovered. So even though plenty of Washingtonians will be sitting down to a pan-seared salmon fillet this evening, we’ll likely be hearing about the exploits of their fugitive brothers a few years from now. Chicken Run 2: Salmon Run.

H. Claire Brown

Claire Brown is a staff writer for the New Food Economy focusing on food policy and the environment. Her reporting has won awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the New York Press Club. She is based in Brooklyn. She can be reached via email at claire.brown@newfoodeconomy.org or on Twitter at @hclaire_brown.