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Can US salmon farming live through this?

Cooke is getting its first real taste of the opposition to salmon farming in the Northwest, and it's not pretty.

The Aug. 20 escape of an estimated half of the 300,000 farmed salmon from Cooke Aquaculture's Cypress Island operation in Washington State would have been, no matter the location around the world, costly both financially and reputationally.

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But in the Pacific Northwest, where wild salmon is a revered icon, it's been an outright PR disaster.

Given the deep-seated opposition to farmed salmon as a concept, even a few dozen fish would have had protestors at the door. Tens and tens of thousands? That's enough to stop an industry dead in its tracks, and it has, literally.

To give you a sense of just how seriously authorities are taking this, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee announced Saturday that an "incident command structure" had been put in place by the departments of natural resources, the governor's office and the Washington Emergency Management Division.

All new permits for netpens have been put on hold pending a "thorough investigation...and assurances that it won't happen again," Inslee wrote.

He also said Cooke should be required to give "adequate" compensation for anyone working to catch escaped salmon.

And of course, the outcry from NGOs, tribes, celebrity chefs and concerned citizens has been loud, in part because most Washingtonians didn't even know salmon was farmed in the state, so the escape came seemingly out of nowhere.

It was never going to be an easy road for Cooke in the Pacific Northwest. You can just look north to the experience of the Norwegian majors in BC, who have long faced NGO, tribal and local opposition to their operations.

While an escape in most parts of the world would have made the regional press, it was stunning to see how quickly the Cooke escape spread across the national news, yet another example of how quickly the industry's reputation can take a hit in the fast-moving world of online media.

With operations in Maine as well, Cooke is now the leading producer of farmed salmon in the United States, so the stakes are high for how it handles the next steps with the public and regulators. Certainly the future of salmon farming in Washington is in a very delicate place.

Though there are site repairs to make and losses to tally, Cooke's clean up has only just begun.

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