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911 call on Atlantic salmon farm: 'The whole thing is buckling'

Jill Davenport
A forklift teeters amid the wreckage of a Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm on Aug. 19

Nearly half the anchor lines on an Atlantic salmon farm snapped one evening in July, a month before an even worse accident caused the aging pens to collapse completely.

The damage in July was severe enough that the entire steel structure drifted "considerably" to the south, according to a detailed timeline of the two accidents released last week by the owners of the football-field-sized farm.

Neither Cooke Aquaculture nor Washington state officials conducted a formal investigation of the July accident.

Cooke revealed the new details in response to a Sept. 15 order from the Washington Department of Ecology, one of the state agencies that began investigating only after the second accident destroyed the fish farm and released 160,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.

“You could call it two accidents. I would say that it’s one big, long accident that took the span of 30 days,” said Tom Wooten, tribal chair of the Samish Indian Nation in Anacortes. He said the salmon farm that suffered a major accident (or two) this summer sat in the heart of his tribe's traditional territory.

“My family actually comes from Cypress Island,” Wooten said. “We had a homestead there in Secret Harbor, which is in Deepwater Bay, where the fish farm’s at.”

Video by Jill Davenport of North Bend of the damaged Cypress Island salmon farm on Aug. 19

The obscure floating farm by Secret Harbor made national headlines after it tore apart, letting fish from the Atlantic Ocean escape by the thousands into Puget Sound. Gov. Jay Inslee set up an emergency incident command center, just like after a major oil spill or forest fire. The big fish spill also led to a statewide moratorium on new salmon farms.

In contrast, it was largely business as usual after the July accident, which did not lead to any salmon swimming free, according to Cooke. The New Brunswick, Canada-based company spent five days trying to keep the rusty old fish farm it had purchased a year earlier from tearing apart, spilling its 305,000 fish or being swept away by the tides.

On the otherwise calm evening of July 24, a tidal current was surging south past Cypress Island. Out in the middle of Bellingham Channel, between Cypress and Guemes islands, it flowed at more than 6 knots (7 miles per hour) — fast enough to stir up whirlpools and boils in the sea. It was July’s strongest current, but nothing extraordinary for the turbulent waters around the San Juan Islands.

Federal scientists happened to have a tidal-current meter operating at the time in the depths of Bellingham Channel, between Cypress and Guemes islands, a mile east of the salmon farm. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had deployed the $40,000 piece of equipment for a two-month stint last summer. The agency is in the midst of updating the 1960s-era tables that mariners rely on to gauge where and how hard the waters will push their boats around the tricky geography of Puget Sound.

Cooke's three fish farms sat in protected Deepwater Bay, a few hundred yards from shore, away from the full firehose of the main current out in Bellingham Channel.

"I would bet money the flow out in the channel is much greater than along the shore there," said oceanographer Chris Paternostro with NOAA in Silver Spring, Maryland.

"Most certainly, Deepwater Bay has slower currents."

Still, as tidewater swirled past the middle farm, 10 of its 22 anchors broke loose. The company’s timeline says “numerous other anchors” dragged along the floor of the bay. The whole farm — 10 steel cages in a grid longer and wider than a football field and 50 feet deep — was pushed downstream.

[asset-images[{"caption": "A schematic of the farm's 22 anchor lines, 10 of which snapped on July 24. For scale: the central yellow rectangle is bigger than a football field.", "fid": "140549", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201711/Cypress2-AnchorSystem-AquaKnowledgeAS.jpg", "attribution": "Credit AquaKnowledge AS"}]]Cooke brought in tugboats to hold it steady. Divers worked through the night to replace anchor lines. But with the next afternoon’s strong tide, the new lines broke as well. It took Cooke three more days to replace all the anchors and lines and declare the site stabilized.

It took just three weeks for the tides to prove otherwise.

Accidental eyewitness 

“Skagit 911," an operator answered Jill Davenport's call from her family's boat in Deepwater Bay on Aug. 19. "What is your emergency?”

“I’m not quite sure if this is a 911 emergency or not, but my husband and I are on our boat in Secret Harbor, and the middle fish pen is breaking apart, and we don’t know who to call,” Davenport said.

She and her family were out fishing for Dungeness crab off Cypress Island when they noticed signs of trouble at one of the three salmon farms there.

As they motored past the ill-fated middle farm, they heard an unexpected sound: the clank of a chain as it dragged over the top of the farm's rectangular walkway.

Then they watched an industrial-sized buoy, about six feet across, jump over a corner of the farm.

That was just the start.

"It was probably a half hour after we got there that we could see the underside of the pens," she told KUOW. "When you can see seaweed, okay, something is seriously wrong."

So she called 911.

“What do you mean by the middle fish pen?” the 911 operator asked.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "It's huge, and the whole thing is buckling. There's a forklift that looks like it's about ready to go in the water.", "style": "inset"}]]“In Secret Harbor on Cypress Island, there’s three fish pens. There’s a bunch of equipment and stuff that, like a forklift and generators and stuff, that are potentially going to go in the water. And we don’t see any humans around," Davenport answered. "It’s huge, and the whole thing is buckling. There’s a forklift that looks like it’s about ready to go in the water."

“We are passing that information along," the operator told her.

Davenport later told KUOW she watched a generator and a fuel tank fall into the sea before repair crews and a tugboat showed up to stabilize things.

Over the next three days, workers tried to make repairs and remove the thousands of fish that hadn’t escaped, according to Cooke's timeline. But the surface walkways and underwater cages were too twisted to work around safely. The timeline says strong tides hampered Cooke's efforts as well.

NOAA's new current datashows that when Davenport made her 911 call, the flow in Bellingham Channel was peaking at about 4 knots (5 miles per hour). Stronger currents would pulse through Bellingham Channel over the next couple of days.

"It tore apart before the maximum," oceanographer Paternostro said. "I think they didn’t fix it correctly in July, and in August the pens were just structurally unsound by then," he said.

“The current wasn’t bothering our boat,” Davenport said. She called herself a fairweather boater.

“We don’t take chances with our kids on the boat,” she said. “So if it’s rough, we’re not going out. It’s just as simple as that.”

Davenport grew up in nearby Anacortes and said she remembers when the salmon farms arrived in Deepwater Bay in the 1980s.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Jill Davenport and her daughter Colby", "fid": "140557", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201711/DSCN0433.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW photo / John Ryan"}]]

“Our experience in Deepwater Bay is that it’s a calm body of water,” she said. “It’s not until you get out into the current of Bellingham Channel that you’ll get, from what we’ve experienced, any action.”

Cooke initially blamed the collapse on "exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week's solar eclipse."

By Aug. 23, the company called the structure a total loss. It was hauled out of the water in September.

Washington and British Columbia tribes want the whole salmon farming industry hauled out of their waters.

“I believe that there’s a place for Atlantic salmon to be raised, and it’s not the Salish Sea," Samish tribal chair Tom Wooten said.

Wooten said the company and the state should have taken that first near-collapse in July more seriously.

“Clearly, that’s when this whole debacle started,” Wooten said.

It may have started earlier. Cooke and government officials knew at least as far back as February that the farm suffered from metal fatigue and accelerating corrosion. At that time, Cooke deemed repairing the farm “not cost effective” and sought permission to replace it after growing one more crop of 3.1 million pounds of fish in it. 

The company had purchased the salmon farm, along with seven others in the state, from Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods in 2016.

After the July 2017 incident, Cooke notified the state's Ecology, Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife departments. How much detail it provided is unclear. Nobody from any of the agencies visited the Cypress Island site until after the August disaster.

Washington Department of Natural Resources officials say their investigation into this year’s great escape of Atlantic salmon will finish by the end of December.

A Cooke spokesperson said the company won’t comment on any matter that may be under investigation.  

“Protecting the ocean has always been essential to our business,” the website for Cooke, the only salmon-farming company in the United States and one of the largest in the world, says.

Cooke Aquaculture's response to the Washington Department of Ecology's demand for information on the two accidents:

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Year started with KUOW: 2009