State agencies unify response to ‘serious’ Atlantic salmon spill

ANACORTES, Wash. – Governor Jay Inslee announced Saturday the state will immediately stop issuing new leases or permits for Atlantic salmon net pens until investigators figure out how thousands of the fish were able to escape into Puget Sound.

At the same time, multiple state and native American agencies are unifying their response to the fish spill.

Local Indian tribes have called the fish spill a crisis, the Lummi Nation declared an emergency.

The company that owns the fish pen, Cooke Aquaculture, says they are working to recapture as many fish as possible – while fishermen are being told it is now open season on Atlantic salmon.

“This is a serious environmental spill,” said Cori Simmons with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

Thousands of farm-raised Atlantic salmon are feared to have escaped their pen near Cypress Island.

Worries about threats to native species and other environmental impacts aren’t clear, according to state officials, but the crisis is real.

“There are a lot of unknowns around the potential environmental impact of this spill at this time, but that’s another part of the reason why unified command is so important,” said Simmons.

Multiple state and native American agencies are now working out of an office inside the Port of Anacortes. Their goal – to bring together multiple experts in their fields to monitor and enhance clean-up efforts in Puget Sound.

“We need to put together a unified command for a more efficient, on site oversight of Cooke’s cleanup operation,” said Simmons. “We want to do this right, we want to do this efficiently and we want to do this quickly.”

Cooke Aquaculture said it may not know exactly how many of the non-native fish escaped last week.

That’s why state agencies have declared Atlantic salmon are open season for anglers in Puget Sound.

But the nonprofit agency Wild Fish Conservancy worries the farm-raised fish could be toxic to the environment because they have been fed antibiotics.

“Just having all of these toxic feeding competing with our wild fish and having orca’s eating them, and other critters, it’s not a good thing,” said Executive Director Kurt Beardslee.

State wildlife agencies ask anglers to record and report Atlantic salmon catches so officials can track their movement.