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Puget Sound piracy leaves trail of (salmon) blood

Call it Puget Sound piracy.

Thieves boarded a floating salmon farm a few saltwater miles from Anacortes on a Saturday night in September. In their wake, they left a trail of blood.

Fish blood, that is.

The thieves boated out to one of Cooke Aquaculture’s Atlantic salmon farms, a grid of 40-foot-deep net-pens ringed by a floating walkway bigger than a football field. They hauled away an undisclosed number of fish from two of the 10 pens. They killed more by turning off the farm’s air hoses that help oxygenate the water where the domesticated salmon swim by the thousands.

Sgt. Russ Mullins with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bellingham inspected the crime scene the next morning.

“There was a wide blood trail the entire length of the walkway, which indicated that numerous fish had been dragged across the metal during the course of the evening,” Mullins said.

He said the amount of blood indicated several suspects working together.

“The number of fish taken is unknown, however, based on the amount of blood on the walkway, the number appears to be significant,” he wrote in his incident report the next day.

It was a cold-blooded crime, at least in the sense that salmon have cold blood.

“We were surprised that the suspects had been so bold,” Mullins said.

There was no one working on the fish farm that night. But a Cooke staffer was on board a neighboring salmon farm, less than half a mile away on Deepwater Bay, according to company spokesperson Nell Halse.

Sounds, like the rumble of an outboard engine, would carry easily across the quiet bay where the salmon farms sit.

The salmon thieves cut through two layers of nets and turned off the farm’s air hoses, which help oxygenate the water where some 300,000 fish were swimming. Overhead netting, designed to keep birds away, fell into the water and bunched up, apparently killing some salmon in that pen.

In his report, Mullins wrote that Cooke employee Sky Guthrie told him “that it appeared that a large number of fish had been taken and that there were many dead fish in the pens as a result of stress.”

Divers removed dead fish, weighing about 10 pounds each, from the bottom of two pens the next day.

Cooke Aquaculture declined KUOW’s interview requests for this story.

“We don’t know how many fish were taken, but it was a small fraction of the fish in the facility,” Halse said in an email.

KUOW learned of the theft through a public records request for correspondence between the company and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Puget Sound’s Most (Un)Wanted

At the time of the crime, thousands of escaped salmon were swimming around Puget Sound. Two weeks earlier, a neighboring Cooke farm, one of three off Cypress Island, had collapsed, letting 160,000 Atlantic salmon swim away.

Cooke was offering a bounty of $30 a fish to get the unwanted salmon from another ocean out of Puget Sound.

“Potentially suspects could have been stealing these fish to essentially sell them back to the aquaculture company,” Mullins said.

Cooke bought nearly 50,000 escaped fish, caught mostly by tribal fishing boats in August and September. The company may have bought some that were stolen from its own nets.

As part of the theft investigation, Mullins said wildlife officials examined several hundred fish that had been delivered to Bellingham Cold Storage the day after the break-in.

Stolen fish should be easy to tell from fish that escaped two weeks earlier. Escapees would have empty stomachs – apparently, the domesticated fish have failed to learn to eat in the wild – while the stolen fish would still have feed pellets in their stomachs. They had been fed just the day before.

Officials did not find any stolen salmon.

“There was such a large quantity of fish put into cold storage and eventually sold back to Cooke, that it would have been tough to examine all of the fish, if not impossible,” Mullins said.

In an email, Halse said Cooke has beefed up security since that night.

WDFW's crime-investigation report:

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