At least three Atlantic salmon showed up in aboriginal fishing nets along the Fraser River — including one near Chilliwack.
It’s setting off alarms because it’s exceedingly rare, said Cheam Chief Ernie Crey, a director with the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Fisheries Society (FVAFS).
The Atlantic salmon were noted by catch monitors at: Shxwhá:y Village in Chilliwack, Yale First Nation, and Katzie First Nation, near Pitt Meadows, all the weekend of Sept. 9.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed that a “significant number” of Atlantic salmon have been reported in B.C. waters recently, with some being identified in the Lower Fraser River since the fish farm failure last month in Washington State.
“They are obviously roaming,” Chief Crey said.
There could be more in the system.
“It worries us although we don’t know if the worry is with foundation. And whether it will result in harmful effects on migrating salmon, I don’t know,” Chief Crey said. “To us they are an unknown entity.”
There were 42 reports of Atlantic salmon called in to the Atlantic Salmon Watch hotline, mostly from anglers, since the escape in August, said Byron Andres, DFO senior aquaculture biologist, and co-ordinator of the program on a media conference call.
Some were also spotted in test fisheries as well as food fish nets of aboriginal communities.
Andres said he’s been able to confirm 24 of those fish were in fact Atlantic salmon, with more confirmations likely to come.
He put aside the fear that the farmed fish might constitute direct competition with wild salmonid species.
“It’s a myth. Some used to believe they could breed or hybridize. But it’s not feasible genetically,” Andres said.
These rogue fish were likely from the large escapement of farmed Atlantic reported last month, from a breached fish farm owned by Cooke Aquaculture in Washington State.
Thousands escaped, about 300,000. Of that total, about 200,000 were recovered.
Other than that it’s definitely a rare find. There were no Atlantic salmon reported in either 2015 or 2016.
“This recent spate of reports is presumed to be the result of those who escaped,” said Andres.
DFO has had dozens of reports in recent weeks from various parts of the province.
READ MORE: Accidental escape at fish farm
One distinguishing feature is black spots on the gill cover or cheek area.
DFO is asking anyone who catches an Atlantic farmed salmon to report it to the Atlantic Salmon Watch program at 1-800-811-6010.
“Retain the head and stomach and if possible take photos,” Andres said. They’ll use the bones to test for the fish’s origins.
B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said after the spill it wasn’t immediately clear what impact the release could possibly have, but that the government was committed to looking at the possibility of land-based containment of aquaculture pens.