ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Washington state is calling all fishermen to help clean up a salmon spill. Hundreds of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon escaped into the ocean last week after a pen collapsed. Riley Starks is a fisherman who has been out catching the farmed salmon. I asked him how he first found out about this.
RILEY STARKS: We got a phone call from a friend who had overheard a Coast Guard conversation with Cooke Aquaculture.
SHAPIRO: The company that owned this pen.
STARKS: That's right, yeah. And they reported a fish spill of 4,000 to 5,000 fish. And so we sent a boat out, and we documented what we saw.
SHAPIRO: And after initial reports that maybe 4,000 or 5,000 fish had escaped, it now looks like the number's in the hundreds of thousands.
STARKS: Yeah. There were 300-and-some-odd-thousand fish in the pen. And we took a drone up to look down in the pens, and we could see maybe a thousand fish at most.
SHAPIRO: Describe how you go about collecting 300,000-or-so fish that are just swimming in the ocean.
STARKS: Well, the funny thing is Atlantics don't act like other fish. You know, they're used to swimming in a pen round in circles and used to getting feed from above. So they tend to want to stay near shore. And once the fishers figured out that, you just, you know, sort of trap them near shore.
SHAPIRO: When you pull in these farmed Atlantic salmon, can you tell whether you've caught one of those or one of the wild Pacific salmon that are native to this area?
STARKS: (Laughter) Yeah. It's pretty obvious. Yeah, these are - they're a different animal. They have large spots. They have a - sort of a long body, kind of a hammerhead. Their tails are streamlined. They're scarred basically by rubbing up against the net pen.
SHAPIRO: Oh, because they're so close to each other in the water.
STARKS: Yeah. So they're not strong swimmers at all.
SHAPIRO: What's the harm if they do get out into the wild population?
STARKS: Well, right now the timing, you know, is particularly bad because all the natives are going up to spawn.
SHAPIRO: The native wild Pacific salmon.
STARKS: Native wilds - and so these farmed salmon are just following them up there. And you know, they've been fed antibiotics. Just pharmaceutical pollution and diseases is the worst of it but also competition for food up the river and competition for spawning. So it's a dangerous situation, and it's one that we shouldn't have to deal with.
SHAPIRO: And so are commercial fishermen putting off their own livelihood, the time that they would be spending fishing for salmon that they could sell at the market, to clean this up?
STARKS: Yeah. That's the company's response plan. (Laughter) It's like an oil tanker rupturing, spilling oil everywhere and the company calling out citizens to bring their boats and their little skimmer cans so they could take the oil home - hallelujah. (Laughter) You know, it's just irresponsible, and it's shortsighted. And it shouldn't be allowed.
SHAPIRO: What does it look like on the scene where these fishermen are trying to retrieve these salmon that have escaped?
STARKS: You know, it's sort of a carnival atmosphere. There are small boats. They're mostly small boats, gill-net boats, but even smaller ones. One boat that was out fishing had three generations of one family fishing. They had a little baby out with them, and they had Mom and grandparents. It was really sweet. But it's - you know, it's - fishermen love to fish, and so there is a certain sort of joy in it. But it's - you know, it's like a Fellini movie. There's the overshadowing sort of despair, you know, that underlies it.
SHAPIRO: How important is the wild native Pacific salmon population to this part of the country?
STARKS: Wild salmon is the icon of the Pacific Northwest. I mean without wild salmon, our ecosystem would be an entirely different thing. Everything depends on wild salmon, from the beginning when they spawn and run out the river to when they come back home to die.
SHAPIRO: Riley Starks is a co-owner of a salmon fishing co-op called Lummi Island Wild in Washington state. Thanks for talking with us.
STARKS: You bet. Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: And we reached out to Cooke Aquaculture but have not heard back.
(SOUNDBITE OF YEASAYER SONG, "DEAD SEA SCROLLS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.