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250,000 Farmed Salmon Escaped Because of Company’s Neglect: Investigators

On Tuesday, Washington agencies released their investigation into what happened when an Atlantic salmon farm collapsed in the Puget Sound this August.

January 30, 2018

Far more farmed salmon escaped from a collapsed net-pen in Puget Sound than was first reported, according to a just-finished state investigation that lays much of the blame on the fish farm's operator.

On Tuesday, three Washington state agencies released their investigation into what happened when the Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm collapsed last August. The Departments of Ecology, Natural Resources, and Fish and Wildlife conducted the investigation.

Related: Divers' videos capture new suspects in salmon farm collapse

The investigation concluded that 250,000 Atlantic salmon escaped -- well beyond the 160,000 fish originally reported to have swam free.

Cooke Aquaculture responded to the investigation by issuing a statement that said state investigators inaccurately estimated the number of fish that escaped by weighing, not counting, the fish that were recovered after the fish farm failure.

The state report says the fish farm broke because Cooke Aquaculture failed to clean the nets. That’s how the nets got clogged with mussels and other marine organisms, which created drag in the Puget Sound tides, straining the moorings that held the fish farm in place.

According to Cooke Aquaculture’s statement, state investigators lacked the expertise to understand the relationship between net pens clogged with mussels and underwater drag.

The investigators also concluded that the company failed to maintain the moorings that attached the fish farm to the seafloor and the metal floats that kept the fish farm afloat. The report says the floats were corroded and fatigued after 16 years in the marine environment, so they could no longer hold the weight of the net pen.

Going forward, the state agencies say they would like to require documentation of structural safety and stability and net cleaning as a condition for fish farm permits and leases.

The report also says, given more resources, the agencies would conduct periodic inspections of net pens.

The findings drew rebukes from lawmakers for Cooke Aquaculture.

“Clean nets are Netpens 101,” said Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim. “If this company was failing at the most basic, most obvious level of maintenance, then it gives me pause about their commitment to running this kind of operation.”


A wild Pacific salmon, left, next to a farm-raised Atlantic salmon at Home Port Seafoods in Bellingham, Washington.

Megan Farmer