Atlantic salmon/escape artist
Atlantic salmon/escape artist Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

On Monday, the Wild Fish Conservancy announced the group is filing a lawsuit against Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, LLC, for violating the Clean Water Act. Cooke Aquaculture, the group argues, was responsible for the inadvertent release of hundreds of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon into public waters, which could potentially out-compete endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead for both food and spawning grounds, as well as spread disease and parasites to native populations.

“This disaster could have devastating effects and could potentially decimate this year’s run of Chinook salmon,” the Lummi Tribe's Natural Resources Director Merle Jefferson told Indian Country Today after the release. “This is unacceptable for all residents of the Puget Sound. We are doing what we can to help limit the damage, but as far as we know, containment is indefinite. These invasive fish are going to find our rivers.”

In August, the suit alleges, the negligent failure of a Cooke Aquaculture net pen in Deepwater Bay off of Cypress Island in the San Juans led to the discharge of the farmed salmon, as well as dead fish carcasses, pollutants, and other debris. According to WFC, this isn't the first time.

“The August release in Deepwater Bay is not an isolated incident," said Kurt Beardslee, WFC Executive Director, in a statement. "Rather, the escape represents yet another act of negligence in a long line of transgressions on the part of the Atlantic salmon net pen industry in Puget Sound, including three major escape events in the 1990s and a deadly disease outbreak in 2012. In the hopes of preventing future harm to Puget Sound and the critical marine habitats on which Washingtonians and wildlife rely, we’re taking legal action today to put Cooke Aquaculture’s actions leading up to and during the spill under legal and public scrutiny for the benefit of our Sound and our salmon.”

In the aftermath of the pen failure, Cooke and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife blamed high tides connected to last summer's eclipse. "Our understanding is with the solar eclipse came some pretty severe tidal exchanges, and within the San Juan Islands themselves, those currents are pretty strong at times," Ron Warren, the department's assistant director, told KUOW. Tidal-gauges, however, showed that tides during that period were actually lower than predicted.

Escaped fish have been found as far south as Puget Sound and as far north as Vancouver Island.