Citing the potential of a threat to native salmon populations, King County Executive Dow Constantine wants the county’s council to enact a six-month moratorium on new Atlantic salmon fish farming facilities along the county’s unincorporated marine shoreline on Puget Sound.

“The hundreds of thousands of farmed, invasive Atlantic salmon that spilled into the Salish Sea in August threaten our native fish populations and our way of life,” said Constantine. “Atlantic salmon don’t belong here. Beyond a six month moratorium, we need to ensure these operations can never again pose a threat to native salmon already struggling to survive.”

The proposed moratorium is the latest political response to the August collapse off Cyprus Island of Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture’s marine net pen, spilling Atlantic farm-raised salmon into the home waters of wild Pacific salmon.

The state stopped issuing new permits while it investigates the incident.

When the net-pen failure seemed to coincide with the Pacific-to-Atlantic “Great American Eclipse,” early speculation had the two events somehow related. But structural collapse brought on by underwater currents and deteriorating anchors soon replaced the more mystic explanations.

The environmental concern, however, was over how many of the 305,000 Atlantic salmon escaped. State fisheries and tribal officials put out the word that the best thing anyone could do was to “go fishing” and pull as many of the escapees as possible out of Puget Sound and the mouths of the rivers and streams that flow into it.

Cooke Aquaculture enlisted the services of the Coast Salish tribes to the tune of $1.5 million and set up an Atlantic salmon buy-back program.

“We are tremendously grateful for the assistance from the several Coast Salish tribes in the recovery of the escaped fish, especially given the deep concern that many tribal members have about potential impacts to native salmon runs in their ancestral waters,” said Glenn Cooke, CEO of Cooke Aquaculture Pacific.

In an Oct. 4 situation update, Cooke reported 200,927 of the 305,000 salmon were in custody. Cooke recovered 145,851 fish from the damaged structure and acquired another 49,892 through the buy-back program. That left about 105,000 missing.

The fear is that interbreeding between the Atlantic and Pacific salmon species will result in weakening Puget Sound’s more hearty, wild breed. Ironically, in response to reductions in many Pacific salmon runs, fish and wildlife agencies in both the U.S. and Canada tried for years to introduce Atlantic salmon in Pacific waters without ever bringing about any colonization or interbreeding. According to Cooke, those failed experiments released more than 8 million Atlantic salmon into the Pacific.

Any missing salmon that were not hooked by individuals would by now be dead, experts say.

Atlantic salmon are raised on Puget Sound in eight commercial net pens under state and federal permits, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA regulates drugs used on fish species and pathogens and requires a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan (HACCP) if processing is involved.

Three pens are just offshore of Bainbridge Island, three in the North Sound in Cyprus Island Bay in the San Juans, one near the mouth of the Skagit River, and one in Port Angeles Harbor near the mouth of the Elwha River. The new moratorium presumably would impact only new applications off the shores of unincorporated King County, but it’s not known if any exist.

Cooke Aquaculture has no plans to expand into King County waters. The company acquired the three-pen floating fish farm off Cypress Island in 2016 and filed a permit to rebuild in early 2017, which was apparently pending when the structures collapsed.

The King County moratorium coincides with the local government’s update of its Shoreline Master Program, which is mandated by state law. Constantine plans to fold new regulations into the master plan review to “eliminate the risk of harm from non-native salmon farming to native salmon runs and shorelines.”

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