Escaped Atlantic salmon turning up in B.C. waters

More than a week after a fish farm collapsed south of the border, there are now reports that the escaped Atlantic salmon are being found in B.C. waters.

Andrew Thomson, regional director of fisheries management for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), said the ministry has received three catch reports since the net pens at a farm near Cypress Island gave way.

Of the three calls that came in to its hotline, one was confirmed, and involved fish caught west of Port Renfrew, a community on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The other two reports have not been confirmed, but involved fish caught near Sooke and Esquimalt, the department said. Officials are following up on the reports.

Thousands of the invasive species spilled out into the Pacific on Aug. 19, an escape the fish farm blamed on blamed high tides and currents caused by an incoming solar eclipse. Some environmentalists said last week that they're skeptical the rare celestial event was to blame, noting that the farm had issues last month as well.

Cooke Aquaculture, the New Brunswick-based company that owns the farm, has been operating in the area for about 30 years. More than 300,000 fish were living in the net pens at the time, but it is not known exactly how many escaped.

In a statement to CTV News, Cooke said crews were back at work Monday pumping fish from the damaged farm. The pens will be dismantled when the fish have been removed, Cooke said.

The Lummi Nation says it has recovered approximately 20,000 fish in the days since the incident. The nation declared a state of emergency last week as a result of the spill. 

"We depend on these fish for our livelihood and if the fish here have impacts there could be a big problem," national resource director Merle Jefferson said last week.

While Atlantic salmon can't breed with Pacific species, some are concerned that local wild populations may be threatened. 

The number of Fraser River sockeye is already low, a biologist told CTV News last week, and the farmed salmon could pose a threat by spreading disease or competing in the same habitat.

However, Thomson said the exotic fish likely can't compete with local fish for food.

"It's not a significant concern for us. We've had these large escapes in the past sometimes, unfortunately, from Washington State, and you tend not to see these fish again," he said.

Thomson said DFO is taking the issue very seriously, and staying up to date with help from its counterparts in Washington.

"We do not want increased pressure on Canadian stocks of chinook and sockeye," DFO said in a statement.

Washington State's Department of Fish and Wildlife is urging the public to help out by catching Atlantic salmon, with no limitations on size or number. The fish are about 4.5 kilograms each.

Officials north of the border are following Washington's lead, encouraging Canadian anglers to fish B.C. waters for Atlantic salmon.

Falling under "unlisted finfish" in the B.C. Sport Fishing Regulations, anglers are permitted to keep 20 Atlantic salmon per day with no size limit. The fish must be caught in areas open to fishing for native salmon. Fishing for salmon in closed areas is not permitted, in order to reduce pressure on wild Pacific species, DFO said.

DFO asks anyone who catches a farmed salmon to report it to the Atlantic Salmon Watch program at 1-800-811-6010. More information on how to identify an Atlantic salmon is available online.

B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said it's unclear what impact the spill will have, but added that the government has committed to invest in technology for land-based fish farms. While the province doesn't issue permits, it does have some say, and there may be some changes under the new NDP government.

 

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