Atlantic salmon, believed to be part of a cohort that escaped from a U.S.-based fish farm on Aug. 19, are being hauled in by anglers fishing out of French Creek on mid-Vancouver Island.
Cameron Wheatley, owner of the French Creek Store at the marina just north of Parksville, received the head of an apparent Atlantic salmon from a local angler late Sunday morning, Sept. 10. He is freezing the head, along with two more fish heads and one whole farm-raised salmon, to turn over to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
“They’ve just recently arrived out here, I think,” said Wheatley, who added he and his wife had been informed of another Atlantic salmon catch as much as a week and a half ago, though they did not actually see that fish.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada maintains an Atlantic Salmon Watch Program in the Pacific Region to track and research the abundance, distribution and biology of the non-native fish in B.C.’s waters.
Those who catch Atlantic salmon are asked to report the catch to DFO by calling 1-800-811-6010 toll-free. The DFO also welcomes donation of the fish for research purposes, though donation is not mandatory.
The French Creek Store is already a DFO depot for collection of hatchery-reared salmon heads, said Wheatley. “I figured we might as well just carry that on with these Atlantics.”
Atlantic salmon are identified by distinctive black spots on the gill cover, a lack of spots on the tail, and erosion of both the nose and the tail fins due to repeated contact with their net pens.
In the case of the whole fish Wheatley was provided to submit to DFO, it was also marked by a considerable number of bright red lesions on its belly.
“That’s gross,” he said. “I asked the people that only brought the head in, did they have those lesions on them? And they all did. That’s an unhealthy fish, as far as I’m concerned.”
Wheatley said those who brought in the heads of the Atlantic salmon told him the stomachs of the fish were empty.
Beginning late last week and through the weekend, both Wheatley and the French Creek harbour authority office were contacted by fishers who hauled in the farmed salmon while angling in local waters.
Thousands of fish reportedly escaped Aug. 19 from a net pen at Cypress Island farm, owned by Cooke Aquaculture between Anacortes, Wash., and the San Juan Islands, when the pen suffered a “structural failure.”
Many of the fish were caught by Washington First Nations fishers in the days following the escape, in nearby waters.
On Aug. 27, the Shishalh First Nation in Sechelt reported that band members fishing for pink salmon had caught three Atlantic salmon. DFO confirmed one Atlantic salmon was caught off southwestern Vancouver Island one day earlier, and was working to verify reports that two more were taken off Sooke and Esquimault in late August.
Wheatley said he had heard reports of the farmed salmon being taken off Ucluelet and Tofino as well.
“Apparently, they’re running up both sides of (Vancouver) Island,” he said.