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Hungry seals blamed for loss of salmon at Down East fish farms

A harbor seal pokes its head out of the water in Casco Bay, Thursday, July 30, 2020, off Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
A harbor seal pokes its head out of the water in Casco Bay, Thursday, July 30, 2020, off Portland, Maine.

A seal attack is being blamed for the loss of 50,000 juvenile Atlantic salmon at two fish farming sites near Cutler.

Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson Joel Richardson said that divers discovered on Aug. 7 that seals had chewed through two cage nets near Cross Island. Each normally holds about 25,000 juvenile salmon, but were empty when workers found them.

The company said that the "unusually aggressive seal behavior" is result of a significant increase in the seal population across the Gulf of Maine, and particularly in Machias Bay.

"This is actually the first time that we've ever experienced such an attack by seals, who quite voraciously went after two of our salmon cages to feed," Richardson said.

Jeff Nichols, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said that the agency was notified of the incident on Aug. 8 and visited the site the next day.

"DMR concluded that it is highly likely that one or more seals were able to get past the predator netting and create a hole in the net pen, allowing fish to escape. DMR staff also witnessed as many as 100 seals on a half tide haul out near the lease site. Others have indicated there are 300 to 400 seals in the area," Nichols said.

Nichols added that the DMR considers "this an isolated and unusual incident, and we are confident that Cooke has established a suitable corrective plan."

In a statement, Cooke said that it was currently determining how the seals entered the sites, as it says the nets were properly tied and also had a second layer of protective netting around them.

Moving forward, Richardson said that the company is exploring using netting with a stainless-steel wire core. Richardson says the company already uses the netting to contain its adult salmon, and seals are unable to chew through it.

"But there are some netting some cages that are for juveniles, small fish, that do not," he said. "And so we're looking at installing that on our other cages now."

The company also said that it is increasing the number of dives each week. Nichols said the DMR plans to continue to monitor the site as the plans are implemented.