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Canada monitoring U.S. salmon spill — it’s very serious, minister says

The federal government says it is monitoring thousands of Atlantic salmon that escaped into the Salish Sea last weekend after a fish farm pen in Washington state collapsed.
Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Dominic LeBlanc speaks during an announcement at the Sea Island Canadian Coast Guard Base, in Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday February 15, 2017. Canada's Fisheries Minister says officials are closely monitoring a spill of Atlantic salmon from an aquaculture facility off the coast of Washington state.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck


The federal government says it is monitoring thousands of Atlantic salmon that escaped into the Salish Sea last weekend after a fish farm pen in Washington state collapsed.

The fish farm is east of Victoria in the San Juan Islands and owned by the Canadian company Cooke Aquaculture. The net pen structure, which was holding more than 300,000 fish, imploded Saturday or Sunday. It’s not known how many fish got out.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said staff in B.C. are looking at the potential impacts and damage to local ecosystems and are in communication with their U.S. counterparts.

“Although this incident happened at an American facility subject to U.S. laws and regulations, our government takes this incident very seriously given its proximity to Canadian waters,” LeBlanc said in a statement.

“The protection of our aquatic ecosystems and the sustainable management of all our aquatic resources are of primary importance.”

The ministry plans to conduct stream surveys to look for the escaped salmon, but it does not expect to see the fish until they mature in the fall.

Research shows the invasive species is not likely to adapt to Pacific waters and cannot breed with wild salmon, the ministry said. It predicts the majority of the fish will be caught or eaten by predators.

However, there’s a risk wild stocks will be affected through competition for food and habitat and the spread of viruses and sea lice.

While the Canadian government is asking the public to report and turn in any Atlantic salmon they catch, U.S. officials have urged people to catch the escaped fish, with no limits.

Nell Halse from Cooke Aquaculture said the company is working with commercial and First Nation fishers to clean up the escaped fish and track whatever they catch. She said the fish are fit for consumption and were set to hit the market in a few weeks.

“It’s like a whole fishing derby out there,” said Halse, adding that the cause of the pen failure is under investigation. She said crews on site reported unusual tides and currents, which they attributed to Monday’s eclipse.

“Something was creating tremendous pull on the structure,” Halse said.

She said the company acquired the site about a year ago along with several others in Washington — their first foray into Pacific operations — and the net pens were being upgraded. “Our commitment is to improve all the operations in Washington,” she said.

B.C. First Nations organizations said they were shocked by the salmon spill after years of concern over fish farms on the coast.

Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, said the spill is a prime example of why fish farms do not belong in the ocean.

“It is high time this industry evolved to land-based operations,” said Chamberlin, citing other industries such as mining and forestry that have evolved in response to environmental concerns.

“We just need the capital investment to do that for this one.”

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