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Nathan Cultee dumps 16 farm-raised Atlantic salmon into a container on Tuesday, August 22, 2017, at Home Port Seafood in Bellingham. 
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Nathan Cultee dumps 16 farm-raised Atlantic salmon into a container on Tuesday, August 22, 2017, at Home Port Seafood in Bellingham.

3 reasons we're farming Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound

Every time I report on the Great Atlantic Salmon Escape of 2017, someone asks me the same question: Why don’t we just farm Pacific salmon species in Puget Sound?

Listener Michael Hrankowski wrote in recently with that exact question. Well, here’s why not.

First, there’s the business reason.

The difference between farming Atlantic salmon and farming Pacific species is like the difference between raising cattle and raising bison. Atlantic salmon are docile, they don’t get into fights in the pens, and they get fat fast.

In other words, they’ve been domesticated. They’re the cows of the sea.

Second, there’s the historical reason.

In 1971, scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center started to raise Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest with the end goal of shipping the fish back east to restore Atlantic salmon runs in New England. Halfway through the project, fisheries officials back in New England decided they didn’t want the fish because of the possibility that viruses and parasites from the Pacific Ocean might be introduced into the Atlantic.

So the fish never made it back to New England. Instead, they ended up in the hands of salmon farmers in the Pacific Northwest. And that’s how Atlantic salmon farming got its start in Puget Sound.

Finally, there actually is an environmental reason.

As far as scientists know, Atlantic salmon can’t interbreed with native Pacific species. That means it’s less risky to raise them in Puget Sound.

If, say, Coho or Chinook were bred to be fat and docile, and then those fish escaped from a net pen, they’d be able to interbreed with wild fish, and their offspring would be less fit for survival. But when Atlantic salmon escape, they can’t water down the wild gene pool (pun intended).

It's still unknown whether or not Atlantic salmon compete with Pacific species for food.