Thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon have escaped their pen at a Vancouver Island fish farm and entered the waters after a damaging fire, the company confirms.
Roughly 21,000 fish were inside the pen at the Robertson Island farm near Port Hardy when the fire broke out sometime overnight between Thursday and Friday, Mowi Canada West said in a statement.
The company said late Saturday that “most” of those salmon have escaped the circular pen, which sits with several others in the waters of the Queen Charlotte Strait.
“Those fish remaining in the pen have been secured, and will be removed,” the statement reads.
The cause of the fire has not been determined. Mowi said the pen will be towed to land for an investigation after the remaining fish are removed.
Mowi said the 21,000 fish in the pen at the time of the fire were left over after harvesting took place last week.
The company says it has alerted “federal regulators and area First Nations about this development.”
In a statement, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said it is aware of the incident and urged anyone who catches an Atlantic salmon in B.C. waters to contact the ministry.
“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is taking this matter very seriously and investigating further,” the ministry office said.
Tavish Campbell, a freelance videographer who captured images of the pen from a helicopter Saturday, said the damage is significant.
“One pen was half sunken and just a wash, and a number of birds were crowded around and feeding on something, likely an escaped salmon,” he said.
Campbell said environmentalists and local First Nations are concerned about the breach, as Atlantic salmon are non-native species that have now invaded the Pacific waters.
“It’s pretty disgusting,” he said. “The risk of pathogen transfer is very high because we know these farmed salmon are carrying a lot of viruses and pathogens that aren’t native to Pacific waters.
“They’re now mixing with our wild salmon and moving into spawning areas, so I hope there’s an effort by the company to capture these fish.”
A spokesperson speaking on behalf of the company says it is working with the DFO and First Nations to develop a plan to recover as many salmon as possible.
But he added that sea lions and other predators have since “congregated in the area” and are “likely feasting on many of the fish.”
Open-net fish farms have come under fire in the past for net breaches.
In August 2017, net pens owned by Canadian company Cooke Aquaculture Pacific — the largest Atlantic salmon farmer in the U.S. — collapsed in the waters off northwest Washington.
Up to 263,000 invasive Atlantic salmon escaped into Puget Sound, raising fears about the impact on native Pacific salmon runs.
The incident inspired Washington state to introduce legislation that would phase out marine farming of non-native fish by 2022.
Groups like the Pacific Salmon Foundation have called for the B.C. and federal governments to do the same in Canada.
In B.C., concerns about the decline of Pacific salmon have already risen to peak levels after the Big Bar landslide in the Fraser River near Kamloops, which scientists say could result in the extinction of multiple salmon runs by 2020.
NPD MP for Courtenay-Alberni Gord Johns said this latest incident is proof the federal government needs to ramp up efforts to crack down on open net farming.
“Pacific wild salmon are are already vulnerable due to climate change and habitat degradation, and their continued exposure to PRV from farmed Atlantic salmon for another five years is simply too big a risk for the whole ecosystem,” Johns said in a statement.
Piscine orthoreovirus, also known as PRV, has been linked with a disease known as heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, which does not affect human health but has killed Atlantic salmon farms in Norway.
The DFO committed earlier this year to screening for the virus, but studies partially authored by DFO scientists have argued PRV does not have the same effects on Atlantic salmon found in B.C.
—With files from the Associated Press