Nonprofit, state offer conflicting ideas about escaped salmon, virus

OLYMPIA — The Wild Fish Conservancy says farmed Atlantic salmon that escaped into Puget Sound last summer were infected with a contagious and harmful virus.

State wildlife officials say the Duvall nonprofit’s claims are exaggerated.

In August, a net pen off Cypress Island at a fish farm off in the San Juan Islands owned by Cooke Aquaculture collapsed. The pen held about 305,000 Atlantic salmon. It is estimated that between 243,000 and 263,0000 escaped. The state said that 57,000 of the escaped fish were caught.

Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC)had 19 Atlantic salmon — donated to the group after being caught in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the site of the Cypress Island escape and 50 miles up the Skagit River — tested at a lab at the University of Price Edward Island, the conservancy said in a news release issued Thursday.

The group said that all 19 were infected with Piscine Orthoreovirus, or PRV. The virus is considered to be one of the causal agents for a heart and skeletal muscle inflammation disease, or HSMI, which would “either kill or render a wild fish incapable of surviving in natural conditions,” according to the news release.

The conservancy also said that despite a state department of Fish and Wildlife finding that Cooke fish from Cypress Island were PRV-positive, a spokeswoman for the department had said that the fish were healthy.

“I’m outraged this disease is being amplified into our public waters and I’m outraged our state agencies are willfully misleading the public,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a blistering statement of more than three pages on Friday.

The news release prepared by Kenneth Warheit, fish health and genetic specialist for the department, said PRV occurs naturally — it was first confirmed in the Salish Sea from fish samples taken in 1987 — and that most fish infected with PRV show no signs of HSMI.

Warheit also said that while native Pacific salmon have been found to have PRV, only farmed Atlantic salmon get clinical signs of HSMI.

“WFC misuses the scientific literature to exaggerate the risk that the August 2017 Cypress No. 2 accident will harm native salmon with a disease (HSMI) that has never been detected in our native Pacific salmon or any fish other than farmed Atlantic salmon,” the state news release said.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife was “the first to report the presence of PRV in the escaped Atlantic salmon,” the state news release said.

However, a veterinarian “determined that these fish were indeed healthy, that is, free from disease.

“WFC continues to inaccurately state the difference between a virus (PRV) and a disease (HSMI),” the state news release said.

In January, the state fined Cooke Aquaculture Pacific $332,000, saying the company had caused the release by failing to maintain the nets. Earlier this month, the state Department of Natural Resources terminated the firm’s lease at Cypress Island, saying it had violated the terms of the lease.

State Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz in December terminated the state’s lease with Cooke in Port Angeles Harbor. Cooke has challenged that decision in a lawsuit.

Cooke owns and operates commercial salmon farms throughout Washington state which it bought from Icicle Acquisition Subsidiary in 2016.

Several bills are working their way through the Legislature to ban or limit fin-fish aquaculture.

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