In 2017, a net pen collapsed at a fish farm near Cypress Island off the coast of Washington State, releasing some 300,000 non-native Atlantic salmon into the wild. The company responsible blamed high tides from the solar eclipse.

State investigators said it was corporate negligence and poor net hygiene.

Most of the fish were never recovered, raising fears that the interlopers may have caused serious damage to native salmon in the area. Scientists who sampled the escapees discovered that some 95 percent tested positive for a salmon virus not commonly found in wild populations (Kibenge et al., 2019).

[Note: Nearly all of Vital Choice’s wild salmon is from Alaska, which bans salmon farming.]

The Cypress Island net-pen failure sparked public outrage. More than 100 businesses and organizations, plus some 12,000 citizens, signed a petition urging Washington’s elected representatives to end these fish farms once and for all.

And in 2018, that’s what they did. The state legislature gave aquaculture companies until 2022 to transition away from raising non-native fish species in open net pens.

But Cooke Aquaculture recently sparked controversy again by announcing plans to keep operating its fish farms at four sites in Puget Sound.

Instead of phasing out the practice, the company plans to use a loophole in the law to start raising native steelhead trout in captivity, rather than Atlantic salmon. Environmental groups worry that this “highly-domesticated, partially-sterile form of steelhead” will interbreed and trade illnesses with the region’s endangered wild steelhead.

However, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife approved the initial permit for the operation earlier this year. The net pens are now under review by the Department of Ecology, which regulates aquaculture.

Energizing the Opposition

The move has revived the same coalition of concerned citizens, businesses, and environmental groups that stepped up to lobby against fish farming the first time. Hundreds of comments have already been submitted in opposition, and a new petition to stop the net pens is garnering support. One environmental group is even offering to take over the net-pen sites and restore them for public use.

What happens next could be a test for the aquaculture industry in North America.

After Alaska banned fish farming some 30 years ago, the industry exploded overseas. In recent years, it's started to creep back to North America. Washington State now has a handful of net pens. And Canadian British Columbia, which sits just to the north, is home to over 100 net pens. Following a series of escapes in Canada, First Nation tribes and environmental groups occupied fish farms and staged protests there, arguing that the net pens threatened native species and endangered fisheries.

As a result, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed Washington State’s lead and made a pledge to ban net pens part of his reelection campaign last year. His Liberal Party said they’d phase out net pens on the country’s Pacific Coast by 2025 (Farmed Salmon to be Phased Out in Canada Due to Environmental Concerns).

However, after the election, and facing stiff opposition from the fish-farming industry, the Canadian government backpedaled on the move, saying it would merely come up with a plan to transition away from net pens by 2025. Conservation groups called the shift “borderline deceitful.”

The Environmental Impact of Industrial Farmed Fish

In recent decades, aquaculture has expanded from a tiny niche market to become the world’s fastest-growing food industry (WRI, 2014). These fish farms typically utilize open net pens, which create a kind of fish corral in shallow ocean waters just off the coast.

Thanks to their high market price, Atlantic salmon are one of the most common species raised in such environments. Their numbers in captivity now exceed those of wild populations.

However, even as the practice has exploded in popularity, studies have increasingly shown that fish raised in open water pens can have significant negative impacts on wild salmon populations and the environment (Morton and Routledge, 2016). The practice usually sees tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of fish raised in close proximity to each other, where they can exchange diseases and parasites like sea lice.

Farmed fish also exact a surprisingly large toll on wild fish populations in another way. Some consumers might think they’re sparing wild fish by eating farmed ones. However, aquaculture has been historically dependent on feeding their captive stocks with smaller wild species that have been pulled from the ocean and processed into meal (FAO, 2018). Without these marine nutrients, captive fish don’t provide the health benefits that wild fish are renowned for.

This dependence is growing increasingly unsustainable as it decimates wild populations and drives up industry costs (Costello et al., 2020). As a result, the industry has increasingly shifted toward feed that uses vegetable oils instead of fish oil, leading to lower nutrient content for those of us who eat them. (Wild vs. Farmed Salmon: What’s the Nutritional Difference?)

And diseases are also more common than many might expect.

In the case of the Cypress Island net pen collapse, researchers who studied the escaped Atlantic salmon found that almost all of the animals were suffering from an infectious disease called Piscine orthoreovirus (Kibenge et al., 2019). The disease is relatively hard to kill with disinfectant, and it’s been found in farmed salmon from Norway, Chile, Canada and Japan, in addition to the U.S.

Even sea lice can be a dangerous problem for wild salmon. Back in 2007, one group of scientists looked at the current rate of sea lice infections passing from farmed fish to wild salmon and determined that wild populations could plummet by 99 percent if things didn’t change (Krkošek et. al, 2007).

Beyond diseases, aquaculture also has a history of polluting waterways with their runoff and helping fuel antibiotic-resistant bacteria through the use of chemicals employed to fight disease. These problems with cleanliness have tended to follow the fish farming industry wherever it sets up (Naylor et al., 2005).

‘The Risk is Simply too Great’

After Washington State officials completed their sweeping investigation into the Cypress Island incident, they determined that the company’s own negligence was to blame. Cooke Aquaculture had blamed “exceptionally high tides and currents” caused by the 2017 solar eclipse, but scientists disputed those claims.

Instead, the report said that “Insufficient cleaning, termed ‘net hygiene,’ led to excessive biofouling by mussels and other marine organisms” (WDNR, 2018). In all, some 110 pounds of mussels and other marine life was growing on the net pen and led to its collapse. The incident wasn’t totally out of the blue, either. The net pen, which had already been in the ocean for 16 years, had actually started to collapse during high tide the month before, but the company failed to adequately address the problem, officials said.

Finally, the report found that the company “misled the public and state about the cause and scope of the escape,” as The Seattle Times reported.

As reports on the incident grew, so did the public’s outrage. And by February 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee had signed the bill into effect phasing out net pens.

At the time, Inslee called out the hundreds of millions of dollars that taxpayers are spending to restore native Pacific salmon runs. “This risk is simply too great,” he said. “It is no longer acceptable to the people of the state of Washington to expose our waters to the threat of Atlantic salmon net pens.”

In response, the company said that it was being unfairly targeted, and that “previous pipeline explosions” and other incidents that occurred in the state also did not prompt efforts to ban the domestic companies responsible, even though these resulted in “demonstrable harm to fish and/or humans.” The company also said that it could hold the state responsible for financial damages and some $70 million in reimbursement for their investment. The company has paid millions in settlements and fines as a result of the incident (WDE, 2019).

Deadlines Approach

Now they may have the final victory. There was an outpouring of public opposition before state wildlife officials ruled on an initial permit for the new project in February. But it moved ahead anyway.

“It’s outrageous that once again the state is leaving the oversight of this industry to the public,” Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy said in a statement at the time. “Given this history, it is beyond comprehension that the [Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife] would grant this permit without first completing a comprehensive assessment of its effects on our salmon, our sound, and our killer whales.”

Now, the public has until October 26, 2020, to submit comments to the Washington State Department of Ecology before the agency rules on whether the project will harm the region’s water quality.

To file a public comment on the plan, visit the Department of Ecology’s website. And if you’d like to sign your name to the petition, you can do so by visiting Our Sound, Our Salmon.


Kibenge, M.J.T., Wang, Y., Gayeski, N. et al. Piscine orthoreovirus sequences in escaped farmed Atlantic salmon in Washington and British Columbia. Virol J 16, 41 (2019).

World Resources Institute. Improving Productivity and Environmental Performance of Aquaculture: Creating a Sustainable Food Future, Installment Five. Richard Waite, Malcolm Beveridge, Randall Brummett, Nuttapon Chaiyawannakarn, Sadasivam Kaushik, Rattanawan Mungkung, Supawat Nawapakpilai and Michael Phillips. 2014

Alexandra Morton and Richard Routledge, Risk and precaution: Salmon farming, Marine Policy, Volume 74, 2016, Pages 205-212,

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (FAO, 2018).

Costello, C., Cao, L., Gelcich, S. et al. The future of food from the sea. Nature (2020).

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, May 17, 2018, WDFW denies permit for company to place 800,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound net pens.

Krkosek M, Ford JS, Morton A, Lele S, Myers RA, Lewis MA. Declining wild salmon populations in relation to parasites from farm salmon. Science. 2007;318(5857):1772-5.

Rosamond Naylor, Kjetil Hindar, Ian A. Fleming, Rebecca Goldburg, Susan Williams, John Volpe, Fred Whoriskey, Josh Eagle, Dennis Kelso, Marc Mangel, Fugitive Salmon: Assessing the Risks of Escaped Fish from Net-Pen Aquaculture, BioScience, Volume 55, Issue 5, May 2005, Pages 427–437,[0427:FSATRO]2.0.CO;2

Washington Department of Ecology News Release, April 29, 2019, Cooke Aquaculture will pay full $332,000 penalty for fish pen collapse in Puget Sound.

Kessina Lee, Washington Department of Ecology; Amy Windrope, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife; Kyle Murphy, Washington Department of Natural Resources. 2017 Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Net Pen Failure: An Investigation and Review,