Did an eclipse's high tides actually collapse a fish farm? Scientists weigh in

SEATTLE — A fish pen containing 305,000 farmed Atlantic salmon collapsed over the weekend in the San Juan Islands, raising fears about the potential that native Pacific salmon will be negatively impacted.

The company first pointed fingers at eclipse’s high tides for causing the pen to give way, but scientists are debunking that statement.

Here’s everything we know about the collapse, and what both sides are saying about the cause.

How many fished were spilled?

The fish pen that collapsed contained 305,000 farmed Atlantic salmon. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife initially said between 4,000 to 5,000 fishes escaped.

But company Cooke Aquaculture Pacific said it does not know how many of the 305,000 fish escaped.




The Seattle Times reported on Thursday that the spill is "much bigger" than initially thought.

When did the pen collapse?

Between 4,000 and 5,000 fish escaped the damaged pen off Cypress Island when it first became compromised Saturday. The farm then collapsed entirely Sunday, trapping most of the fish inside.

Who owns the farmed fish?

The farm's owner is Cooke Aquaculture Pacific. The company owns eight fish farms in Washington.

The one that collapsed is their Cypress Island facility. Scroll down to keep reading. 

Did the eclipse’s high tides really cause the spill?

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific said high tidal fluctuations and currents of around 3.5 knots, coinciding with the solar eclipse, led an anchor to give way.

Nell Halse, the company's vice president for communications, acknowledged that people have reacted skeptically to the company's connection of the eclipse to the currents but said the conditions over the weekend were the worst veteran aquaculture workers have seen.




But scientists have debunked Cooke’s statement about the high tides and currents coinciding with the eclipse.

Tide charts show stronger tidal fluctuations at other times of the year, particularly November, when there are also typically stronger winds.

Parker MacCready, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, told The Seattle Times, "The data speak for themselves: there were large tidal ranges around the day of the eclipse, but not out of the ordinary, and in fact, they were smaller than during some recent months."

Then what caused it?

Halse said the Cypress Island facility had a problem with structural integrity in July during a strong current but that the problem had been fixed.

According to National Oceanic and Atmosphere Admiration, a hide tide of 8.47 came through at the end of June.




Wild Fish Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee believes that it comes down to inadequate equipment and maintenance.

"That was not a big tide, that was a normal tide," he told KIRO 7 News.

Beardslee spent several days on the water near the farm and returned with photos of captured Atlantic salmon that appear in rough shape.

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific will be doing a full assessment on what caused the collapse.

Is this bad for the environment?

Those who say yes: Fish farms in Washington and British Columbia are a major concern for advocates of the environment and those who want to protect native Pacific salmon.

There are five kinds of native Pacific salmon: Chinook (also called King), Coho (also called Silver), Pink (also called humpy), Chum, and Sockeye.

"You simply do not want these salmon farms in Washington waters or anywhere near Washington waters," said Captain Paul Watson, of Sea Shepherd. "They're causing too many problems transmitting diseases and parasites to wild salmon populations."

Can diseases really happen? 

Those who say yes: Beardslee spent several days on the water near the farm and returned with photos of captured Atlantic salmon that appear in rough shape.

"These are not signs of healthy fish," he said.

Beardslee says naturally occurring diseases among salmon are amplified in the cramped quarters of a fish pen, and can spread from farmed fish to wild Pacific salmon, which are already struggling,

Beardslee of Wild Fish Conservancy said they pose an ongoing threat to the marine ecosystem, and he opposes a proposed new fish farm in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

"The excuses made for this industry by our agencies is quite appalling. Around the world there is evidence that these things are a nightmare," Beardslee said.

Beardslee said his group intends to send an experienced salvage diver into the area near the collapsed fish farm to take photos and look for evidence of the environmental impact.

Lawyers for Cooke Aquaculture Pacific sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Conservancy, saying it was unsafe to be near the collapsed facility.

Those who say not so much: Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, and officials with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, both have said the fish in the farm were largely healthy before the collapse.

Michael Rust, science advisor for NOAA Fisheries' Office of Aquaculture, is not worried about the transfer of disease.

"I think at this point in time there's very little danger that that will be an issue," Rust said.

Rust said Atlantic salmon have been farmed successfully in local waters for four decades.

He says the fish don't breed here on their own, and often can't eat anything beyond pellets.

"When escapes happen the most likely thing that occurs is these fish get gobbled up by predator, or get caught, or continue to mill around the site until they die of starvation," Rust said.

Rust said there have been considerable improvements in the aquaculture industry over the last 20 years.




Both the company and state officials did not expect disease to be transferred to native salmon because the farmed fish are considered healthy.

Ron Warren, fish program assistant director for WDFW, said the farmed salmon had not received meal that contained antibiotics for more than a year.

"That's a good indicator of a good healthy lot of fish," Warren said.

Warren expects the fish will make their way to fresh water areas, particularly in north Puget Sound, but predicted the biggest native impact on local wild salmon would be new competition for food.

What’s the deal with anyone being able to catch them?

State officials encourage recreational anglers to catch the salmon, which are about 8-10 pounds each.

The state says there is no size or catch limit for Atlantic salmon. An identification guide for Atlantic salmon can be found here.

Will that really help get rid of them?

Some are skeptical, including renowned Seattle chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas.

“There’s no way to get rid of them; they’re in the wild,” Douglas told KIRO Radio. “When you do catch them, you can tell the difference, so sure, go fish for them. Do I think they’re all going to get caught and not intermingle with our wild species? Absolutely not. It’s too late. The fish are out of the pen, so to speak.”

How is the community reacting?

The Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency Thursday after thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon escaped from an aquaculture facility off Cypress Island.

The tribe says with the spill still uncontained, spawning grounds for native salmon are at risk.