A harbor seal holds an Atlantic salmon, an escapee from Cook Aquaculture’s fish farm, near Cypress Island on Aug. 21. Thousands of non-native fish got loose when the fish farm’s net pen broke Aug. 19. This photo was taken by Annie Thomas, a Western Washington University student from Maltby.

A harbor seal holds an Atlantic salmon, an escapee from Cook Aquaculture’s fish farm, near Cypress Island on Aug. 21. Thousands of non-native fish got loose when the fish farm’s net pen broke Aug. 19. This photo was taken by Annie Thomas, a Western Washington University student from Maltby.

Escaped salmon reported seen throughout Puget Sound region

It’s an environmental emergency. It’s an opportunity. It’s both. The escape of thousands of Atlantic salmon from net pens at a Cypress Island fish farm has brought a crisis response from the state and area tribes — even as it lures anglers for a rare chance at no-limit fishing.

Those non-native fish are “going with the flow,” said Cori Simmons, state Department of Natural Resources communications director and spokeswoman for a recently formed state incident command.

Since Aug. 19, when Cooke Aquaculture notified the state Department of Fish and Wildlife that non-native fish had escaped, anglers’ reports of Atlantic salmon being caught have been mapped. According to the department’s map, anglers had reported 1,256 Atlantic salmon caught by Tuesday.

Reports have come from as close as the Snohomish River, near Everett’s Lowell Riverfront Park, and from as far west as Neah Bay. Atlantic salmon have also been caught recently near Edmonds, off the south end of Whidbey Island, near Port Townsend, offshore from West Seattle’s Alki Beach, and near Mercer Island on Lake Washington.

“It’s not good,” said Troy Thomas, of Maltby, who spotted a harbor seal with a big Atlantic salmon in its mouth just off Cypress Island last week. The island, in Skagit County southeast of Orcas Island, is where one of three net pen arrays at the Cooke Aquaculture facility failed, according to Simmons.

Based in New Brunswick, Canada, Cooke Aquaculture farms salmon in Atlantic Canada, Chile and Scotland, along with Maine and Washington.

Thomas, 55, his wife Linda, and their 22-year-old daughter were boating back from Friday Harbor on Aug. 21 when they stopped for lunch near Cypress Island. They were anchored a quarter-mile north of the salmon pens. “About 20 feet away, a little seal was showing off what he caught,” Thomas said Monday. “A couple other seals had fish also.”

His daughter Annie Thomas, a Western Washington University senior studying marine ecology, took pictures of the seal. On Tuesday, Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Michelle Dunlop confirmed what the family suspected. Fish biologists established that the fish in the seal photos is an Atlantic salmon.

“I don’t know if I would eat one,” said Annie Thomas, who volunteers at the Seattle Aquarium. “They’re farm raised, and treated for different health issues.” The seal, she said, “ate the belly of it and called it good.”

Reactions to the Atlantic salmon escape included a statement Saturday from Gov. Jay Inslee. “The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon,” Inslee said. “I have directed the Department of Ecology to put a hold on any new permits for net pens until a thorough investigation of this incident is completed.”

The Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency Thursday, and by early this week estimated that about 200,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon had been brought in by tribal nets.

“We have a real crisis on our hands,” Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Brian Cladoosby said in a statement released Aug. 23. “We will not know the full impact from this incident for some time, but the potential implications for native salmon are quite severe.”

Simmons said work has started on removing the damaged structure from the water. “The investigations will take time,” she said.

While Troy Thomas understands the possible harmful effects on native salmon, he hopes to catch some of the farm-raised, pellet-fed fish, and be part of the solution. “I’m going to try it this weekend,” he said. “No limit, that’s unheard of.”

Anglers are encouraged by the Fish and Wildlife department to catch Atlantic salmon, which the agency said are safe to eat. The fish are about 8 to 10 pounds each. State fish managers ask that those catches be reported online.

A current fishing license is required. There is no size or catch limit on Atlantic salmon, but anglers may only fish for them in marine waters open to Pacific salmon fishing, or in fresh-water areas open to trout or Pacific salmon fishing. And they must stop once they have caught their daily limit of other fish.

“I was out there on Sunday. I caught three over by Cypress Island,” said Marysville’s Spencer Haug, 18, who works at John’s Sporting Goods in Everett. “A lot of people are interested. It’s been good for business.”

Anglers hoping to hook Atlantic salmon are having luck with Point Wilson Darts and Buzz Bomb lures, he said.

Haug said he barbecued one of the Atlantic salmon he caught. “It was delicious,” he said, describing the flavor as a mix between steelhead and coho.

“This has been a really dismal year for a lot of people, and this has given them an opportunity. It’s good for kids, they’re having a blast,” said Haug, adding that he had an Atlantic salmon on a hook 15 minutes after he started fishing.

Troy Thomas hopes the invasive fish are caught quickly. He fears they might eat salmon fry, or the food sources for native fish.

“It would be nice if somebody would tell the orca whales that they’re out there,” he said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Information about fishing for Atlantic salmon: http://wdfw.wa.gov/news/aug2417a/

See a map of where Atlantic salmon have been caught: http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/salmon/atlantic_catch_map.php

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