Did the eclipse really cause that big release of fish?

  • Derrick Nunnally The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)
  • Wednesday, August 23, 2017 9:25am
  • Local NewsNorthwest

By Derrick Nunnally / The News Tribune

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 on Saturday afternoon, about 4 p.m., 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, in careful phrasing, that 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 this week’s eclipse caused high tides.

It did involve the moon, as do tidal fluctuations.

However, the NOAA’s early charts 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 4 p.m. net-break Saturday did happen 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 does 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 tribal 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 trustable 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 new 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. Ecology officials are currently 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 DFW said. There is no limit on the number anyone can pull in.

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