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Washington Declares Open Season On Escaped Aquaculture Salmon

Instead of enforcing limits on fishing, wildlife officials in Washington state are doing just the opposite – they're asking the public to catch as many fish as they can, regardless of size. Atlantic salmon, that is.

The fish apparently escaped from the Cooke Aquaculture fish farm near Cypress Island over the weekend. The farm is blaming the solar eclipse for "exceptionally high tides and currents" that damaged a net pen where the fish were kept and allowed an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 to make a swim for it. Environmentalist groups which oppose fish farming of non-native species in Washington, say they doubt the eclipse explanation.

On Sunday, members of the Lummi Nation, out fishing for chinook, or king salmon, a Pacific variety native to Washington, instead began pulling up Atlantic salmon, lots of them. More were caught on Monday.

As a result, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is encouraging people to catch as many of the escapees as possible, regardless of size, hoping to mop up the intruders.

"Our first concern, of course, is to protect native fish species," said Ron Warren, head of the the WDFW's Fish Program said in a statement. "So we'd like to see as many of these escaped fish caught as possible."

Nell Halse, vice president of communications for the aquafarm, dismissed environmental concerns. She was quoted in The Seattle Times as saying the Atlantic salmon would not survive for long and that they posed no risk to the native species.

"It's primarily a business loss. The salmon will be food for the seals and the fishermen can enjoy them," she said.

The Times notes: "Between 1951 and 1991, state fishery officials tried to introduce [Atlantic salmon] in the region by releasing — on 27 occasions — young smolts into Puget Sound. Those efforts were unsuccessful."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.

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