First Nations are alarmed at Atlantic salmon turning up in their territorial waters as concern spreads with the invasive fish across the Canada border.
“Salmon don’t know any borders; they go with the tide. The international aspect of this is very real,” said Bob Chamberlin, elected chief councillor of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation and vice chairman of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
Chamberlin has asked for a meeting with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to discuss the escape of farmed Atlantic salmon from Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s facility near Cypress Island the weekend of Aug. 19. “Will they populate the rivers?” Chamberlin said. “That is the massive concern.”
Dominic LeBlanc, minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, issued a statement saying “our government takes this incident very seriously given its proximity to Canadian waters.”
“We will be working to understand the potential impacts of this incident and prevent any damage to Canada’s marine ecosystems.”
The department is conducting stream surveys in areas closest to the U.S. border to find the Atlantic salmon.
Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said that once the state’s response to the fish spill is out of “emergency mode,” the governor and staff will meet with other stakeholders.
A map created by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with the help of anglers who were invited to file reports to an online database of Atlantic salmon catches shows the escapees have spread across the international border to both sides of Vancouver Island.
A catch of 11 fish in the Columbia River reported Monday has been eliminated from the map as based on unreliable data. But the fish have nonetheless spread far and fast, to the concern of First Nations, Washington tribes, agencies and regulators.
The incident comes as controversy over open-water fish farms comes to a boil in British Columbia, where First Nation members have occupied the Marine Harvest Swanson Island fish farm near Alert Bay for nearly a week, vowing to remain until leases for the Broughton Archipelago are canceled.
Ernest Alfred, a traditional leader for the Lawitsis, Mamalilikala and Namgis First Nations, is leading the encampment at the fish farm, and said the fish spill across the border hit home.
“This industry operates in both our waters and we share their frustrations. Washington state, although far from where I am standing now, I feel for the people there, I really feel the frustration and the concern. We stand in full solidarity with our brothers and sisters on the other side of the border.”
The fish spill also comes as wild salmon in First Nations territorial waters are returning home, just as in Washington. “We are incredibly concerned because of the threat that these foreign species pose to our wild stocks. They will be mingling with what Fraser River sockeye are left. It just really underscores and highlights the potential danger and the concerns that we have over these farms in our territory.”
Those concerns include disease, parasites and waste from the farms, Alfred said.
He chose Swanson Island for the occupation in part because of its location, Alfred said. “This is the one farm that is in my family’s traditional home waters and it is really important that I defend them.”
In Washington, Hilary Franz, commissioner of public lands for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) — which leases public bed lands to Cooke for its fish-farm operations — has ordered the Canadian corporation to chase down and recover escaped fish. Just cleaning up the immediate area of escaped Atlantic salmon is not good enough.
“Multiple reports from Tribes and the public indicate fish are traveling far beyond the immediate area, so it is imperative that Cooke also begin efforts to recover fish at the mouths of rivers and streams where other fish are migrating or moving to spawn,” DNR stated in a letter to the company.
The agency has demanded a recovery plan that describes the efforts Cooke will deploy to “recover the greatest possible number of escaped Atlantic salmon and … continue tracking and locating all remaining Atlantic salmon.”
Cooke also must provide to DNR a plan about how it will protect native Washington salmon species from Atlantic salmon such that the wild fish will not be preyed upon or interfered with in spawning, migration or rearing.
Franz also is requiring inspections of all structures licensed to the company in Washington waters, with DNR personnel present during the inspections.
Cooke’s No. 2 site at Cypress Island collapsed the weekend of Aug. 19, with 10 net pens holding 305,000 nearly mature Atlantic salmon. The company has been vacuuming up fish that remain in its nets, with at least 141,546 captured, said Chuck Brown, spokesman for the company. The company is continuing its work to remove the fish.
“We are certainly cooperating with all the agencies here. We want to do what is right,” Brown said.
The Lummi Nation has caught at least 20,000 Atlantic salmon in an emergency fishery sponsored by the tribe, which has promised to pay buyers to take the fish.
Some of the farmed fish have misshapen mouths because of a genetic mutation and some fishermen had trouble selling them, said Jay Julius, tribal council member at the Lummi Nation and a fisherman, who said he has been out catching the Atlantics for days.
“These are some ugly fish.”