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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Officials try to blame eclipse, tides for Atlantic salmon spill in Puget Sound

It was a convenient explanation.

Officials said the eclipse brought on high tides around Cypress Island, off Washington state – and that’s why thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon managed to free themselves from their floating net pens in Puget Sound.

It turns out that explanation doesn’t hold water.

That’s because the tides around Cypress Island, where the pens are located, were not abnormally high on Saturday, when the pens collapsed. Tide tables show that the island had higher tides every month this year than the 7.9-foot tide predicted to reach the island about 5 p.m. on Saturday.

The escape of so many Atlantic salmon is an “environmental nightmare,” said Kurt Beardslee, director of the Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest.

“The Atlantic salmon bring with them pollution, virus and parasite amplification, and all that harms Pacific salmon and our waters of Washington,” Beardslee said.

An unlikely excuse

The pen holding the fish failed Saturday afternoon after an anchor pulled loose and metal walkways twisted.

“Our understanding is with the solar eclipse came some pretty severe tidal exchanges, and within the San Juan Islands themselves, those currents are pretty strong at times,” Ron Warren, the department’s assistant director, told KUOW’s The Record.

Cooke Aquaculture, which owns the fish farm, said in a statement to the Seattle Times that “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” caused the damage.

Tides are driven by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun, yet around Cypress Island they were not abnormally high on Saturday. 

Tidal-gauge data kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the San Juan Islands show high tide was actually 3 inches below the tide-table forecast for Saturday afternoon. The year’s highest tides, in January, had reached more than a foot higher.

The tidal current off the southeast shore of Cypress Island, where the net pens sit, was about 1 mile an hour at the time of the spill, according to the nautical site DeepZoom. It had reached nearly 4 miles an hour around dawn on Saturday.

“I fish up there — that's nothing unusual in that area,” Chase Gunnell with Seattle-based Conservation Northwest said. 

In fact, the channel off Cypress Island had stronger currents at least once every month of 2017 than it did Saturday, according to DeepZoom. 

Saturday was a calm day as well: Winds in nearby Anacortes never exceeded 6 miles an hour that day, according to the National Weather Service. 

Since the spill, commercial fishing boats have scrambled to catch Atlantic salmon. Fishers reported thousands of the non-native fish jumping in the water or washing ashore.

‘Environmental nightmare’

Warren said his main concern is that Atlantic salmon could out-compete native chinook salmon and steelhead for food and spawning grounds.

Kurt Beardslee of the Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest said this event should be of concern — especially as the same company, Cooke Aquaculture, is proposing a larger Atlantic salmon net pen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“The majority of our salmon migrate through the straits when they’re leaving as juveniles. You start having a viral or parasitic outbreak there, when our juvenile fish are moving through — it could be a disaster,” Beardslee said.

Beardslee rode around Point Williams Tuesday afternoon collecting Atlantic salmon from commercial fishers.

Lummi Nation leaders worry that all this fishing could end up hurting endangered chinook salmon.

“[Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife] has encouraged recreational harvesters to catch as many as they can, but what does that mean to the other species? The chinook?” said Elden Hillaire, Lummi Nation Natural Resources Commission chairman.

The state posted an identification guide to help fishers distinguish Atlantic salmon from native Pacific salmon species.

Hillaire said Lummi fishers had reported catching Atlantic salmon from Bellingham Bay down to Samish Island.

He said this isn’t the first time the tribe has dealt with fish farm escapees.

“We had an escapement a decade or more ago where we actually had them caught in the [Nooksack] River as well,” Hillaire said.

He said there should be a backup system and better alerts for when farmed fish get loose.

Penalties for the fish farm are still being evaluated.

Phone calls to Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian company with salmon farms on three continents, were not returned. While Cooke just purchased the Cypress Island salmon farm last year, the company is no stranger to tides. It is headquartered in the province of New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy, home to the world’s biggest tides.