Here’s what that farmed fish escape in Washington could mean for Alaska

Leaders and experts in Alaska's fishing industry are concerned about what a recent escape of farmed Atlantic salmon in Washington state waters might mean for Alaska.

On Aug. 19, damage to a fish farm owned by Cooke Aquaculture in the San Juan Islands area allowed thousands of Atlantic salmon to escape "following a structural failure of part of the net pen structure," Cooke spokeswoman Nell Halse said in a statement.

The farm fully collapsed the following day, Halse said. The nets held hundreds of thousands of fish, and as of Thursday it still was not clear how many got out. In Washington, The Seattle Times reported, the farmed fish are "headed to every river in Puget Sound."

In Alaska, where fish farming is illegal, some fear the escapees might eventually make their way north and impact native species. That worry is quelled a bit by the fact that Atlantic salmon have cropped up in Alaska before, but haven't established a population here.

Jerry McCune, president of commercial fishing group United Fishermen of Alaska, said that in the past, Atlantic salmon have been found as far north as the Copper River.

"They could end up here and we've got to take them out," he said. "It's very concerning because Washington's raising non-native species and they continue to do that in pens, which always have a chance of escaping."

Risks associated with a non-native species coming in, he said, could include the introduction of disease, intermingling with wild salmon stocks, and "getting in our spawning streams" to crowd out the wild fish.


"One of the big fears is they could take hold as an invasive (species)," said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.

She said that Atlantic salmon have been caught in Alaska for "quite some time," and earlier this year a "suspicious looking juvenile" was found in a Southeast creek.

Tammy Davis, invasive species program coordinator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that while the Washington escape is concerning, she's not worried that it will have a big impact on Alaska's fishery.

"Certainly if you want to look at all the very broad scale possibilities, the potential for Atlantic salmon to start breeding is there, I'm not going to deny that," she said, "but we haven't seen it yet, and this is not by any means the first big release of Atlantic salmon."

Davis also said that the most pressing issue here, from her department's perspective, is the importance of people keeping track of whether they catch any Atlantic salmon.

"The nugget of this story for Alaska is, report your fish," she said. "We want to know if you caught them."

Gary Freitag, marine advisory agent for the Alaska Sea Grant program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said he's concerned about the escape because of the potential for competition with Pacific salmon over food and rearing space.

Still, he added, "it's not much of a concern to me if they don't establish themselves in a river system." While there have been cases of invasive fish spawning in the wild in British Columbia after getting loose, he said, "it's never developed into a problem in Alaska."

Halse, the spokeswoman for Cooke, said in a phone interview that a plan to capture as many of the escaped fish as possible is underway with the help of local fishermen.

"We are very concerned about the health of the salmon fishery and the salmon stocks, we have a vested interest as part of Icicle (Seafoods)," she said. Cooke acquired Icicle last year. "We hope that this will have absolutely no impact on the wild fishery in Alaska. It shouldn't have any impact on it. But we respect the concerns people have."

The fish are free of disease and parasites — they are tested for such problems regularly — and they had no antibiotic treatment in the past year, Halse said.

High tides and strong currents were to blame for damaging the pen, she said.

Ni Cushmeer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Washington state, said that tides measured at Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands the day the escape started didn't appear to be higher than usual.

"But if you have strong enough currents, strong enough currents can cause damage," she said.

The equipment "basically folded in on itself" and is now unusable, Halse said. The fish farm had been operating near Cypress Island for about 30 years, but Cooke only owned it for the past year.

To some, the significance of this fish farm escape has broader implications. McCune and Kelley are concerned about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's plans to open up federal waters around Hawaii and other islands in the Pacific for fish farming.

"We, fishermen, have been vocal about this for years, that net pens do not belong in a dynamic ocean," Kelley said.


Davis, with Fish and Game, said people can call the state's invasive species hotline at 1-877-INVASIV to report if they've caught an Atlantic salmon. The department's website tells how to report.

Because Atlantic salmon are a non-native fish in Alaska, sportfishing regulations for them are very liberal, Davis said. Fishermen are allowed to catch them year-round in fresh or salt water, and there's no size, bag or possession limit.

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.