BAINBRIDGE ISLAND – With some of the last net pens floating behind her in Rich Passage, state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz announced an executive order Friday morning to end net-pen farming of finned fish in Washington waters.
The order came on the heels of her agency’s termination this week of Cooke Aquaculture’s remaining leases in Puget Sound in Rich Passage and near Hope Island.
“As we’ve seen too clearly here in Washington, there is no way to safely farm finfish in open sea net pens without jeopardizing our struggling native salmon,” Franz said in a statement. “I’m proud to stand with the rest of the West Coast today by saying our waters are far too important to risk for fish farming profits.”
Protesters, mostly Cooke employees, gathered with signs reading, “Science not Politics,” and “No Farms No Food,” at Franz’s news conference at Fort Ward Park. Franz said the department of Natural Resources has been asking and promoting opportunities to continue to farm fish on land.
Net-pen fish farming has been outlawed in California, Oregon and Alaska.
In an interview this week, Lummi Nation Chairman Tony Hillaire recounted his feelings during the 2017 Cooke Aquaculture net pen collapse that released some 260,000 nonnative Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound.
“Our health and wellbeing is undeniably bound to the health and wellbeing of the native salmon stocks – it’s our culture. It’s our way of life,” he said. “As you can imagine for many, many people with culture and values when there’s any threat to it, our hearts and minds are consumed by the uncertainty of what’s happening.”
Cooke Aquaculture purchased all of Washington’s net pen facilities in 2016. After the 2017 spill at the company’s Cypress Island farm, the state Department of Natural Resources terminated the lease, and inspections of the company’s facilities elsewhere ramped up.
In Port Angeles, investigators found inspections that apparently weren’t in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations or industry standards. DNR terminated that lease for failing to maintain the facility in a safe condition and operating in an unauthorized area. Cooke challenged the decision in court, and a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of state regulators.
The state Legislature in 2018 passed a law effectively phasing out net-pen farming of exotic species in Washington waters. Cooke has since pivoted to raise steelhead – a fish native to the region.
Cooke officials said with the decision to end their leases, “Commissioner Franz is forcing Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to kill 332,000 juvenile steelhead that were planned to be stocked at Rich Passage and Hope Island in 2023.” And they argued her decision won’t save wild salmon.
Tribes and environmental advocates say all fish farming poses a threat to wild species.
“It’s about the disease vectors and how that can escape into wild populations,” said Todd Woodard, natural resources director for the Samish Indian Nation. “When you say, ‘We’re raising native fish,’ native fish are not raised and reared in those kinds of concentrated environments.”
Several studies in the 2010s found that young sockeye salmon from B.C.’s Fraser watershed were infected with higher levels of lice after swimming past sea farms. And in March, an audit revealed sea lice counts at about five times the legal limit at a farm in Clayoquot Sound. The lice can affect salmon growth, and cause death, in severe cases.
After the state terminated the remaining leases, Cooke released a statement detailing reports that pointed to the contrary.
Earlier this year, a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested raising finfish in the marine environment wouldn’t “jeopardize the continued existence” of many native species, like Chinook salmon, Hood Canal summer-run chum or Puget Sound steelhead.
But, according to the report, the fish farms were found to have potential adverse affects on the species and critical habitat.
DNR determined that Cooke’s operations could pose risks to the state’s natural environment, letters state. Feeding fish in concentrated areas releases nutrients and organic matter that can contribute to algae production, state officials wrote. And fish poop can degrade the environment on the ocean floor.
There’s also a risk of attracting and trapping wild populations, and the risk of escapes is a reality of fish farming, the state wrote.
“This is a big victory for everyone who values the Puget Sound ecosystem,” Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said. “This action eliminates a harmful impact in our ancestral waters. The Rich Passage net pens have long been a threat to our salmon fisheries, both through their threats to our genetic stocks, the pollution associated with their care and feeding, and the physical obstruction to our treaty fishers. They have blocked and polluted our fishing grounds for too long, and we are relieved to know they will be removed, restoring our waters back to a more natural state.”
Opposition efforts to the net pens began years ago, but didn’t ramp up until the 2017 spill, said Tom Wooten, Samish tribal chairman.
The escape threatened the state’s already weak stocks of native Pacific salmon and treaty fishing rights, said a 2017 statement from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
“We’re concerned about our traditional territory,” Wooten said. “We’re going to continue to fight for what we believe is right.”
While California, Oregon, Alaska and now Washington have banned net-pen fish farming, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for companies to phase it out by 2025.
Salmon aquaculture is among the fastest-growing food production systems in the world, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. It accounts for about 70% of the market. In 2018 the World Resources Institute released a report that said the industry needs to more than double by 2050 to meet the seafood demands of 10 billion people.
Net-pen fish farming has existed in Puget Sound for more than three decades, according to NOAA.
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