There were signs of concerns months before a pen containing about 305,000 non-native farmed salmon broke loose, releasing half of the fish inside.
A spokesperson for Cooke Aquaculture, the company that owns the pen, says it applied for a permit with Skagit County early this year to replace and reorient a pen in the San Juan Islands. Emails King 5 obtained later show part of the reason was due to strong currents in the area.
According to public records, the WA Department of Natural Resources (DNR) received a memo from Cooke about improving the pen at the end of June.
On July 26, less than a month before the salmon release, emails show the DNR received calls from Cooke, indicating there were several mooring failures the day before.
“I’m summarizing the phone conversation I had with Kevin Bright from Cooke Aquaculture Pacific this morning,” DNR aquatic land manager Sean Carlson wrote to assistant division manager Dennis Clark. “He informed me that site 2 at Cypress Island experienced several mooring failures yesterday. They were able to get several tug boats on site to secure the net pen to keep it from moving. Fish escapement didn’t occur and all of the equipment and fuel were moved from site 2. They intend to re-secure the anchorage at the next available slack tide.”
No fish had escaped, according to another email. However, Clark said over the phone Monday that the DNR took the company’s word that the pen had been stabilized.
“Based on our experience working with the people at this company – who we've been working with for many years – we had confidence they had taken care of it. Obviously, that was not the case,” Clark said.
On August 19, an anchor became loose and the pen broke open, releasing about 165,000 Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound.
However, emails between DNR representatives Carlson, Clark and district manager Josh Peters about the release do not appear until two days later, on Monday morning.
“Kevin Bright left me several messages over the weekend regarding site 2 at their Cypress Island leasehold. They had several more anchors fail Saturday evening (8/19) and currently have tug boats on site holding the structure in place. Based on Kevin’s last voicemail at 4:00 yesterday afternoon, the superstructure is damaged and fish escapement occurred…If you’ll recall, site 2 had several anchor failures back on Tuesday, July 25, but there was no fish escapement then,” Carlson wrote to Clark and Peters.
An email from Bright to several agencies on August 21 stated: “We are estimating upwards of 4000 fish may have escaped but it is impossible to confirm exact numbers until the remaining fish are pumped out and inventoried.”
The number of escaped Atlantic salmon turned out to be more than 40 times that.
Commissioner of public lands Hilary Franz says it took three days for DNR, Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Ecology to set up an incident command center. The response drew widespread criticism.
“It is true we did not have that type of approach set up for a situation like this, but I would say to you we have not had this kind of situation before, nor a process to have three agencies working side by side together to address the situation,” Franz said on Monday.
The DNR says it will be doing full inspections in light of the failure at Cypress Island. Cooke Aquaculture says the company does weekly inspections but is willing to meet with policy makers about additional oversight.
A company spokesperson said, “We don’t want this to happen again either.”