Aerial footage of a net holding more than 300,000 salmon that broke amid the eclipse's high tides near the San Juan Islands. KIRO 7 Courtesy
Aerial footage of a net holding more than 300,000 salmon that broke amid the eclipse's high tides near the San Juan Islands. KIRO 7 Courtesy

Local

Is the claim the eclipse caused Puget Sound’s Atlantic salmon jailbreak just a fish story?

By Derrick Nunnally

dnunnally@thenewstribune.com

August 22, 2017 9:00 PM

The coincidence was, seemingly, too good to toss out of the boat.

Cooke Aquaculture, which controversially farms Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound waters where native chinook salmon are officially endangered, suffered a disaster about 4 p.m. Saturday, when a net pen that held in more than 300,000 fish broke open near Cypress Island.

Up to 5,000 fish escaped, by the company’s estimation.

The result is feared to be an ecological catastrophe: potential competition and unknown diseases directly introduced into a zone where state, federal and tribal governments have labored for decades to revive the native version of the Salmonidae scientific family. A Lummi fisherwoman told the Seattle Times the situation was “a devastation.”

In a prepared statement and an interview with the Times, Cooke Aquaculture — whose website says “our mission is to be a global seafood leader” — defended its practices and suggested it was the victim of freak weather. The net break, Cooke contended, was caused by “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse.”

One problem has emerged: the absence of evidence that Monday’s eclipse caused high tides.

It did involve the moon, as do tidal fluctuations.

However, early charts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of observed water levels show that the high tides in nearby Friday Harbor, for example, have been about 7 feet, 6 inches for most of August. The net-break Saturday happened around high tide, but the recorded water level then was about 3 inches short of the predicted crest, which had been in line with the 7-foot-6-inch mark.

The low tide a few hours before had been slightly lower than 1 foot 6 inches below sea level, and registered a few inches lower than predicted, which suggest that there could have been strong volatility in play. A Cooke spokesman told the Times the current reached 3.5 knots.

However, Casey Ruff, management director of the tribal management group Skagit River System Cooperative, told Crosscut that “we’ve recently had bigger tidal exchanges.”

Puget Soundkeeper executive director Chris Wilke went further, and more pungent, with his reaction: “This is B.S.,” he told the Times.

The larger issue in play is that Cooke Aquaculture needs to show it is a trustworthy steward of Washington’s natural resources, including the waters of the Sound. The company, based in New Brunswick, Canada, has met with controversy over its plans to open a net-pen operation near Port Angeles, east of Cadiz Hook.

According to the Department of Ecology, the state has eight commercial marine net-pen salmon farms operating, under guidelines that are 20 years old. Department officials are working on updating management recommendations, which could result in a change of regulations for which new facilities could get permitted.

“If they can’t be trusted in an accident like this,” Wilke told the Times, “how can they be trusted to tell the truth in the permitting process?”

In the meantime, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife put out a news release Friday urging anglers to catch as many of the escaped Atlantic salmon as possible to get them out of Washington’s waters.

The rogue fish should weigh between 8 and 10 pounds and are safe to eat, the agency said. There is no limit on the number anyone can pull in.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

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