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Chaos Theory In Action

USFWS employee holding an Atlantic salmon above moving water
Atlantic salmon. Photo by Greg Thompson, courtesy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region.

“Jurassic Park” came out in 1993; the film won dozens of awards, spawned three sequels (so far) and remains the 25th highest-grossing movie ever in the U.S. It was hard to miss.

So you would think that by now we would all have absorbed the lesson that, in nature, anything that can happen eventually will happen – and bad stuff often results. For instance, if you raise Atlantic salmon in pens on fish farms in the Pacific Ocean, sooner or later one of the pens is going to collapse and – presto – you have introduced a potentially invasive species.

That’s exactly what has happened. For an extra science fiction twist, you can even blame the solar eclipse.

Cooke Aquaculture, which oversees fish farming off the coast of Washington State, blamed “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” for the catastrophic net failure that allowed an estimated 305,000 Atlantic salmon to escape into Pacific waters, the CBC reported. In addition to the tides, the 1.3 million kilograms (about 2.9 million pounds) of fish pressing against the nets may have contributed to their failure.

Whatever the reason, thousands of Atlantic salmon are now loose in the wrong ocean. In response, Washington state officials are telling everyone to go fishing. The officials worry that the Atlantic salmon will harm the five Pacific salmon strains, and potentially other wildlife, through competition, predation or disease transfer. Experts have mixed opinions on the risks, but the state is unwilling to chance the worst. Invasive species have compiled a bad track record.

So the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife is encouraging private and commercial fishers to catch as much Atlantic salmon as possible, with no limits on catch size or numbers. Maybe they’ll even provide cedar planks for cooking; I don’t know. But I do know that if you dump more than 300,000 fish into the ocean, you aren’t going to catch all of them. (And if you take me fishing with you, you’re not likely to catch any of them.)

Fishing your way out of an invasive species crisis is not an entirely novel idea. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have tried this strategy with lionfish. But while reducing the invaders’ numbers may help, in the case of Atlantic salmon the invasion need never have happened in the first place.

All this comes after decades and millions have been invested in trying to restore populations of native salmon up and down the Pacific coast. Many of those populations were devastated when major rivers like the Columbia and its tributaries were dammed, cutting off salmon from their freshwater spawning grounds. Whole industries developed to truck salmon around the dams or raise them in hatcheries. In some cases, dams have even been removed to allow Pacific salmon – and Atlantic salmon on their home turf – a chance to recover. Conservationists in Canada are taking similar approaches too.

I’m a big fan of farmed seafood; it’s a highly efficient way of raising healthful protein cost-effectively while protecting wild fish stocks that, in many instances, are already severely depleted. But raising Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest? That is a problem that was looking for a place to happen. It found one. Maybe, in the end, those Northwest fish farms would be better placed on land.

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