Washington State freezes new fish farm licenses amid Atlantic salmon escape

Thousands of salmon released after fish farm’s nets collapse in Washington state
WATCH: Thousands of salmon released after fish farm's nets collapse in Washington state

The State of Washington has put a moratorium on new fish farm licenses in the wake of the collapse of an aquaculture facility that saw thousands of potentially invasive Atlantic salmon escape.

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife says it believes 4,000 to 5,000 fish got loose from the farm near Cypress Island, about 50 kilometres east of Victoria last Saturday.

READ MORE: Solar eclipse not to blame for massive fish farm escape: environmentalists

The pens held more than 300,000 salmon.

Fish farm critics worry the non-native breed could out-compete local wild Pacific salmon, or carry disease or sea lice into the wild population.

WATCH: Increased calls for more fish farm regulations
Increased calls for more fish farm regulations
Increased calls for more fish farm regulations

On Saturday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee said the state formed an incident command structure to respond to the escape, and that no new permits would be issued while officials conduct a probe into the farm’s collapse.

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” I have directed the Department of Ecology to put a hold on any new permits for net pens until a thorough investigation of this incident is completed,” Inslee said in a statement.

He added that the company that runs the farm, Cooke Aquaculture, must act aggressively to stop any further escapes and recover the fish, “including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters.”

Canadian Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic Leblanc said last week that the department is “closely monitoring” the escape, and that Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) staff is in close communication with U.S. counterparts to minimize the impact.

READ MORE: B.C. Environmentalists: Do farmed salmon threaten wild species with disease?

Cooke has said that the collapse was the product of a high tide coinciding with the solar eclipse, an explanation that has drawn skepticism from local fishermen and environmentalists.

The Washington State collapse has resonated in B.C., where the fish farm industry is highly controversial.

First Nations groups and environmentalists argue that the farms are bringing disease while unintentionally catching thousands of wild herring, and have pushed for the industry to be moved inland.

B.C.’s aquaculture industry says there is no evidence that fish farms pose an environmental threat.

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The DFO says rigorous Canadian Pacific Aquaculture regulations have cut down on salmon escapes in the province, and that all farms must be engineered to withstand strong ocean tides and rough weather.