Canadian fishing closures challenge search for U.S. Atlantic salmon escape
Derrick PennerDERRICK PENNER
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Published on: August 25, 2017 |
Commercial fishing closures on Fraser River salmon will make it more challenging to discover whether Atlantic salmon escaped from a wrecked fish farm in Washington state’s San Juan Islands, fishers say.
In the meantime, American officials are reporting catches of escaped fish in a close-to-100-kilometre radius south and west of the facility as of Friday, said Ron Warren, assistant director of fish programs for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“The westerly migration is clear out beyond the Elwha River (on the Olympic Peninsula), so I think it’s safe to say a 60-mile radius is pretty accurate,” Warren said.
As many as 300,000 Atlantic salmon started escaping from a Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm off Cypress Island, which is about 50 km northeast of Victoria in the San Juan Islands, on Saturday when structures anchoring the facility began to fail in strong tides.
On the Canadian side, however, commercial fishing closures to protect lower-than-expected sockeye salmon returns mean there are few people out fishing to encounter the escaped Atlantics and find out how far north they might have come, said Sonia Strobel, managing director of Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery.
As of Thursday, the Pacific Salmon Commission had not caught any Atlantic salmon in the test fishing that it conducts off Point Renfrew to assess sockeye and pink salmon stocks, said commission chief biologist Mike Lapointe.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokeswoman Michelle Rainer said the department hasn’t received any confirmed sightings of Atlantic salmon.
Washington officials have ramped up efforts t0 recover as many of the fish as possible by opening up sport angling on Atlantics, with no limit, and allowing commercial seafood distributors to buy them as an incentive to catch them, Warren said.
The DFO, however, “is not taking the same approach,” Rainer said. “We do not want increased pressure on Canadian stocks of chinook and sockeye (through sports fishing).”
However, since Atlantic salmon are categorized as an “unlisted finfish” in B.C. sport fishing regulations, anglers can catch and keep up to 20 if they are finding them in areas where fishing is open, Rainer said.
“That’s going to be the trouble with tracking them in Canadian waters,” said Strobel. “And therefore the chances of them interacting with and harming our already fragile Fraser sockeye is much greater than it otherwise could be if we could be out there targeting those escaped Atlantic salmon.”
In the meantime, events are unfolding on both sides of the border to brighten the spotlight on issues around salmon farming including the threat of a lawsuit, and renewed calls to put the industry in land-based farms and a ramping up of the First Nations occupation of a B.C. salmon farm to pressure for its removal.
The Washington State conservation group Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest served notice on Friday that it plans to sue Cooke Aquaculture for negligence over the discharge of salmon and other waste from the farm.
In B.C., the occupation of a Marine Harvest salmon farm near Swanson Island off northern Vancouver Island increased from four to 12 individuals, said Ernest Alfred, who has ties to Namgis, Lawit’sis and Mamalilikala Nations.
Alfred said the First Nations were never consulted about allowing the farm and they are pressuring on the province to cancel its lease and on the company to remove fish from the facility.
In Washington, Warren said a salvage firm is at Cypress Island with plans to pluck the damaged farm structure out of the water, which will end the release of salmon that officials believe is continuing considering the damage to the site.
That will also finally give officials a better accounting of how many of the 305,000 fish that were in the pens escaped.
Warren said so far, the fish being caught have had nothing in their stomachs, but show signs that their adult egg and milt sacs are developing.
“They’re trying to figure out how to eat, I’m assuming,” Warren said. “And also trying to figure out where to spawn.”
Warren advised that the anglers catching Atlantics have been having good luck using light-coloured spinning lures both casting from boats and from shore.
“We’ve had lots of reports of success,” Warren said.