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That Atlantic salmon farm was on its last legs — and Washington state knew it

A wild Pacific salmon, left, next to an escaped farm-raised Atlantic salmon, right, on Aug. 22 at Home Port Seafoods in Bellingham.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
A wild Pacific salmon, left, next to an escaped farm-raised Atlantic salmon, right, on Aug. 22 at Home Port Seafoods in Bellingham.

Cooke Aquaculture and state officials knew at least six months ago that the floating salmon farm that collapsed in August was "nearing the end of serviceable life," with accelerating corrosion eating away at its hinges and steel structure.

Even so, they agreed to fill the damaged structure with a full load of 3.1 million pounds of Atlantic salmon in an area regularly swept by strong currents.

The end result: approximately 162,000 fish from another ocean breaking out and spreading throughout Puget Sound and into Canadian waters. Some have swum up to 150 miles away, into the Pacific Ocean off the outer coast of Vancouver Island. Tribes and environmental groups fear the sudden influx of aquatic predators could mean trouble for the region’s already-beleaguered Pacific salmon.

Cooke filed for a permit from the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in February to replace and reposition the aging fish farm it had purchased from Icicle Seafoods a year before. In the application, Cooke describes the farm, one of three it owns off Cypress Island’s steep, rocky shores, about 60 miles north of Seattle:

The existing steel net pen structure has been in service for approximately 16 years in the marine environment and is due for complete replacement. Steel net pen systems located in the marine environment are subject to the corrosive effects of salt water and to metal fatigue from the constant wave energy, storm events and the extreme forces that are exerted on them from tidal currents. The corrosion on the metal walkway grating and substructures is accelerating and some metal hinge joints show signs of excess wear. Repairing the rusted steel walkways and replacing fatigued metal components of the existing cage system structure in place is not cost effective or practical.

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "138875", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201708/Viz-SalmonNets.jpg", "attribution": ""}]]At least seven different agencies, from county shoreline planners to the U.S. Army, regulate some aspect of salmon farms in Washington. Cooke’s application says the company had been in touch with officials at Skagit County Planning and Development Services, the state’s Natural Resources and Ecology departments and the Army Corps of Engineers in January.

“Everybody’s looking at these facilities as they’re permitted and moved and upgraded,” said Joe Smillie, spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources.

None of them kept Cooke from operating a fish farm, known to be structurally damaged, full to the gills.

The weighting is the hardest part

Farmed salmon begin as eggs hatched in a freshwater hatchery. Later, tiny smolts, weighing about a quarter-pound each, are transferred to floating, 40-foot-deep saltwater pens where they grow for a year or more before being harvested.

In March, two months after applying for its permit to replace its aged fish farm, Cooke applied for a water quality permit from the Washington Department of Ecology, seeking to raise up to 3.1 million pounds of salmon.

“That stocking number would be very normal for that site,” said Chuck Brown, Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson.

By July, the Cypress Island salmon were approaching their full-grown weight of 10 to 12 pounds each when a fast tidal current surged down Bellingham Channel and into Cypress Island’s Deepwater Bay, where Cooke’s three farms are located.

[asset-images[{"caption": "A damaged net pen at Cooke Aquaculture's facility on Cypress Island is shown on Tuesday, August 22, 2017. ", "fid": "138639", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201708/MF_Salmon01.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer"}]]

Currents of similar or greater speed had pulsed through Bellingham Channel all year long, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

What was different this summer was the extra million pounds the floating farm had put on since January for the current to push around.

The Cypress Island fish farms, originally installed in the 1980s, were designed with the strong tidal currents of the Salish Sea in mind. The net-pen structure that collapsed in August had beefy anchoring systems: the floating grid of 10 pens was held in place by two dozen anchors weighing as much as three tons each and tethered by synthetic lines nearly as thick as the business end of a baseball bat.

View: Farm replacement application from February (pdf)

But those restraints weren’t up to the task on at least two occasions this summer as the fish held by the nets grew and grew. In July, with an estimated 2.8 million pounds of salmon crowded within the grid of heavy, square cages, the fish farm anchors slipped. The entire farm moved with the current.

Brown said the company was able to quickly make repairs to the mooring system. No fish escaped.

“Once we had that work done, we were pretty confident that the site was stable and that it would be fine for the next few months until we harvested that farm out,” Brown said.

Instead, a month later, after the 305,000 salmon swimming inside put on more weight and were nearly ready for market, another strong current tore the aging pen apart.

Smillie, the Department of Natural Resources spokesperson, said Cooke’s February application to replace the net pens – describing them as fatigued, corroded and near the end of their life — didn’t cause the department to rethink its approvals for this year’s operations.

“In their application, they said they weren’t planning to replace these until after this year’s harvest,” Smillie said. “They asked us to relocate and replace these facilities and didn’t make it in time, obviously.”

I asked Smillie if it was prudent, given what the state knew about the farm’s structural problems, to let Cooke load it to its full 3.1 million pound capacity?

“That’s something we’re investigating with our sister agencies right now,” he said.

I asked Brown, of Cooke Aquaculture, as well.

“Well, obviously, in light of what happened, we know a lot more now than we did before Aug. 19, but we had full confidence in the system,” he said.

When Cooke lost 20,000 Atlantic salmon from its farm off Newfoundland, Canada, in 2013, it blamed "high tide and unusually strong currents," according to CBC News. The company gave the same explanation for its recent salmon spill into Puget Sound. 

Aquaculture oversight: broad, not deep

The Department of Natural Resources inspected the Cypress Island farm in September 2016. Smillie said DNR does fairly perfunctory inspections, checking on things like whether emergency response kits are well-stocked.

“We don’t have a whole lot of structural engineers on staff to go out and inspect our lease facilities,” Smillie said.

DNR’s 5,000 aquatic lease holders include everything from marinas to oyster farms. “We really rely on them to make sure that their facility is in good shape and doesn’t fall apart,” Smillie said.

He said the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife inspects salmon farms, but not for structural integrity, just to make sure the fish are healthy.

The U.S. Coast Guard inspects boats as well as floating and waterfront facilities that use hazardous materials, but not fish farms.

“Fish are not considered hazardous,” Coast Guard Commander Darwin Jensen said.

Brown, Cooke’s spokesperson, said the company has been evaluating and auditing all eight of its Washington fish farms since it bought them a year ago, with the goal of bringing them up to Cooke’s standards. The Cypress site that collapsed was top of the company’s list because of its poor condition as well as its orientation, sitting broadside to the main current.

“It was definitely ready for replacement,” Brown said.

He said the company’s other fish farms were not at risk of a similar disaster.

“We certainly don't feel that way,” he said.

He could not provide details, such as the age or condition of other farms.

“Our team here is so busy and focused on the recovery effort,” Brown said from Anacortes.

The company is participating in the incident command structure set up by Gov. Jay Inslee on Aug. 26 to respond to the salmon spill on an emergency basis.

Smillie said DNR has told Cooke it expects structural inspections of the company’s remaining fish farms, with DNR staff observing, “as soon as the situation at the failed Deepwater Bay structure is under control.”

Cooke Aquaculture's February 2017 application to replace an aging salmon farm off Cypress Island:

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Year started with KUOW: 2009