OLYMPIA, Wash. - Several hundred juvenile Atlantic salmon have been spotted in a Thurston County creek near a commercial hatchery that breeds the nonnative species for fish farms, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife says.
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Concerns about Atlantic salmon colonizing Pacific Northwest streams at the expense of native fish have worried biologists and fishing interests as the salmon-farming industry has grown explosively in recent years.
Scatter Creek, a tributary of the Chehalis River, is home to a healthy native coho salmon population.
The Atlantic salmon - some as long as a foot - were spotted during a snorkeling survey of Scatter Creek earlier this week.
"We don't know how long they've been in the creek, frankly," John Kerwin, the department's head hatchery official, said Friday.
Juvenile salmon sometimes escape hatcheries through holes in screens, as water used to keep the fish alive is discharged into nearby creeks and streams, Kerwin said.
As many as 183 young Atlantic salmon per year have been found in downstream traps in the Chehalis River system, Kerwin said. However, no adult Atlantic salmon have ever been caught attempting to return to the system.
The Scatter Creek hatchery, operated by Cypress Island Inc., Washington's dominant commercial salmon-farming operation, is the only hatchery in the state currently producing Atlantic salmon.
Although state officials don't know for sure where the young fish came from, the hatchery is the logical place to look, Kerwin said.
"We are going to meet with them next week," he said.
State biologists collected 17 of the fish for genetic testing and analysis.
The department and representatives of Cypress Island will work on a plan to remove the foreign fish, prevent future escapes from the hatchery and step up monitoring for hatchery escapees, Kerwin said.
Washington law bans introduction of nonnative fish into the state's waters, but the law is aimed at willful violators, Kerwin said.
Possible removal methods include hand-netting the fish, electroshocking the creek or constructing a trap that would allow the Atlantic salmon to be removed from the creek as they migrate downstream,
Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Washington Trout, which opposes Atlantic salmon farming, called the news a predictable result of introducing an exotic species.
"This puts at great risk Washington's salmon, Washington's native salmon," Beardslee said. "This one has just come home to roost."
A telephone call to Cypress Island's Anacortes headquarters wasn't immediately returned.
Cypress Island's Scatter Creek hatchery produces up to 3 million juvenile Atlantic salmon a year for transfer to the company's eight net pen sites around Puget Sound, the department said. Those farms in turn produce 11 million to 14 million pounds of salmon each year.
The survey of Scatter Creek was the first in a series funded through a grant from the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. Additional surveys for nonnative species are planned for 13 other watersheds over the next two years.