Pacific Northwest tribes concerned over Atlantic salmon spill

Two Atlantic salmon (top), which are not native to the Pacific Northwest, next to a Chinook salmon (bottom), which is a species that is native to the Puget Sound. (Photo by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.)

The Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency last week after a spill of farmed Atlantic salmon, a species that is not native to the Pacific Northwest and is considered invasive.

“Tribal fishermen are currently fishing within Bellingham Bay and at the mouth of the Nooksack River to protect and help prevent native fish of the area from being eaten or exposed to disease,” the announcement read in part. “The Atlantic salmon spill must be addressed immediately by all levels of government.”

Other Indian nations, including the Swinomish and the Samish tribes, have expressed concerns over how the native salmon species, which are threatened species and are an important part of coastal tribal life, might be affected by the escaped farmed salmon, which could compete with the natives for limited food and resources.

Atlantic salmon are not interchangeable with their Pacific counterparts. Buyers are generally not as interested in Atlantic salmon, and the native diet consists of wild salmon, Lummi fishers told to Scientific American.

The escaped farmed salmon had been in a pen on Cypress Island in north Puget Sound run by Canadian company Cooke Aquaculture. The company said last week that the pen collapse had been caused by high tides — and later retracted an statement that the high tides were caused by the solar eclipse.

Several Washington state agencies, including the departments of Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources and the Office of the Governor and state Emergency Management Division, created an incident command structure for the salmon spill over the weekend.

The first estimates was that 4,000 Atlantic salmon had escaped, but that number could be as high as 185,700 escaped salmon, according to Washington state’s incident response team.

The Lummi Nation announced Monday that its anglers caught 20,000 of the invasive fish.

So far 119,500 Atlantic salmon have been captured, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

Licensed anglers have been encouraged to catch unlimited amounts of the Atlantic salmon but but fishing is only allowed in marine areas that are already open to Pacific salmon fishing or in rivers that are open to Pacific salmon or trout fishing. The limit is to protect other fish species we manage and prevent poaching of those native species, according to the department. Department of Fish and Wildlife also says fishers must stop when they have caught their limit of the native Pacific salmon.

The state over the weekend also announced a moratorium on any new permits on  marine Atlantic salmon net pens until it has reviewed the latest spill.