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Russell Wangersky: The ones that got away

An open-pen salmon farm on Digby Neck
An open-pen salmon farm on Digby Neck

Turn a corner in any number of parts of the Atlantic provinces, and you might see them: the long buoy lines or square ocean cages of a growing aquaculture industry.

Russell Wangersky

They bring shellfish and finfish to market, species grown fat and large by aquatic farm husbandry.

Mussels and oysters hang in socks from ropes beneath buoys, salmon and sometimes steelhead trout swim in circles in ocean cages.

The mussels, however, stay in one place, attached by the sticky strands know as byssus threads, their own special strong yet stretchy bungee cords. The oysters aren’t going far, either, at least not after they turn from free-floating larvae to oyster seed.

But the finfish?

Well, they can be quite a bit more transitory, a fact that became particularly clear last week after a west coast salmon farm, filled with 300,000 fish weighing 3 million pounds, came apart two weekends ago. The farm was owned by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, a subsidiary of New Brunswick’s Cooke Aquaculture, which now has operations in Canada, the U.S., Scotland, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina.

It’s not clear how many fish got away into Puget Sound, but fishermen are currently allowed to take as many fish as they can catch, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife saying in a statement, “State salmon managers are encouraging anglers to fish for thousands of Atlantic salmon that escaped recently from a salmon farm near the San Juan Islands.”

Putting fish into the oceans in pens is one thing: trying to find them after there’s been a catastrophic pen collapse is something else again.

Most interesting?

Perhaps that the stated cause of the collapse — an eclipse-related tidal and current pulse overwhelming the facility — might not have happened. The company said in a news release that, “Exceptionally high tides and currents caused damage to a salmon farm that has been in operation near Cypress Island for approximately 30 years.”

But consider these two paragraphs from a Seattle Times article on tides the day of the collapse: “Parker MacCready, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, noted tide data do not support the company’s claim. ‘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.’

“Jonathan White, author of ‘Tides the Science and Spirit of the Ocean’ (Trinity University Press, 2017), said there were 105 tides this year as large or larger than those experienced over the weekend. ‘If they were not prepared for this tide, they were not prepared for any tide,’ he said.”

It’s a catastrophe worth watching, even as aquaculture expansion continues on this side of North America. A subsidiary of a Norwegian aquaculture giant, Grieg NL, is planning an unprecedentedly large salmon venture for Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay, and the government of the province is going back to court to try and overturn a legal decision requiring all aspects of the project to undergo full environmental assessment. The site would be one of the biggest farmed salmon ventures in Canada, with a larger and newer cage technology and a type of triploid salmon not grown in the region before.

Meanwhile, Washington State’s governor, Jay Inslee, has ordered the state’s Department of Ecology to put all applications for permits for salmon net-rearing cages on hold until further notice.

What do you need for safe aquaculture? The best and the most accurate information possible, up front and public and open for review. Regular, ongoing and thorough inspections of the physical aspects of the facilities, as well as their operations, methods, and any treatment of their stock with drugs or other materials.

You earn trust. You shouldn’t expect it.

Aquaculture pens and lines may lie peaceful in our waters; government oversight can’t.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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