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No Net Pen Neutrality

Washington banishes Atlantic salmon farms


May 1, 2018

Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill into law on March 22 that phases out existing net pen aquaculture for non-native fish species by 2025. Inslee also vetoed a provision stating that the legislature would research, review, and reconsider the issue “as new science becomes available.”

After ping-ponging the bill back and forth between House and Senate and surfing through intense debate, persistent lobbying from all perspectives, and a tsunami of proposed amendments, the Washington legislature gave its eleventh-hour nod of approval. Rejected amendments included requiring all-female fish in Atlantic salmon net-pen farms, and giving operators a state tax break and lease-fee reduction for converting to farming only native fish.

The law weighs anchor May 22, effectively banishing farmed Atlantic salmon from Pacific shores after all current leases expire.

Washington now joins Alaska and California in banning Atlantic salmon net pen aquaculture. Oregon has no operations, in part because the coastline isn’t as suitable as Washington, which has the cold water, swift currents, and coastline that salmon farming operators need and want.

Commercial fishermen, environmental groups, Western Washington tribal leaders, and others hailed the legislation, although some wondered why it took so long, given the number of other incidents during the past 30 years of “experimentation” in salmon aquaculture. They say Cooke created the problems through negligence, and the industry is, was, and will always remain too risky for Puget Sound and its native fish.

Fish farm advocates consider the ban more of a disaster than the net pen collapse that ultimately spawned it.

Cooke Aquaculture – a multibillion-dollar, privately-held corporation based in Canada with operations in Europe, South America, Japan, and the Eastern United States – purchased the nine Atlantic salmon farms in four separate locations from Icicle Seafoods in 2016 as part of the company’s plan to grow through acquisition.

Things went swimmingly, or so it seemed, before disaster struck, reigniting the longstanding controversy about farmed salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

The drama began in August 2017 when the nearly complete structural failure and collapse of Cooke Aquaculture‘s net pen facility in Deepwater Bay off Cypress Island spewed an estimated 160,000 to 263,000 live farmed salmon, fish carcasses, and tons of debris into Puget Sound. Commercial fishermen and others were concerned about the escapees’ potentially detrimental effects on Puget Sound’s “fragile ecosystem” and “already imperiled” wild salmon fishery.

“In the months since the net pen failure, we have learned the extent of the mismanagement and negligence of Cooke Aquaculture,” said Senator Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island), who led the charge to enact HB 2957. “This sort of careless behavior is unacceptable for any company in Washington. The state ban is a strong stance to ensure the protection of our marine environment and native salmon populations in the Salish Sea.”

Bitter Battle

After the Deepwater Bay mishap, three state agencies – Natural Resources (DNR), Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and Ecology – conducted a four-month investigation and inspection of Cooke’s operations.

In December 2017, DNR terminated the lease for Cooke’s Port Angeles harbor fish farm, citing serious safety issues. Cooke officials disagreed with the findings, noting that the termination was based on “miscommunication and misunderstandings,” and filed an appeal in Clallam County Superior Court. Hilary Franz, the state’s commissioner of public lands, then terminated the lease at the Cypress Island farm on February 2, just four days after the agencies released their investigation report, citing multiple violations at the site.

Cooke, they noted, was negligent in operating its net pens and “significantly misrepresented vital facts” about the site, where a second net pen was at risk of collapsing. Cooke managers initially reported a much smaller fish escape that was caused by unusually high tides affected by a total solar eclipse that week. Later, Cooke reported 160,000 escaped fish, while state officials said 263,000 Atlantic salmon were released into Puget Sound and scattered in all directions.

The termination covered all three sites at Cypress Island, which operated under one lease.

According to the report, Cooke allowed 110 tons of mussels and other sea life to accumulate on the nets at Site 2, creating lateral drag even during normal tidal surges that collapsed the pen and freed the fish. Investigators said the net pen at Site 1 was “in poor condition, likely past the end of its service life, and in danger of catastrophic failure.”

The state fined Cooke $332,000 for water-quality violations. The two terminations fin-clipped about 42 percent of the company’s production capacity of Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound, according to DNR, leaving only its locations in Rich Passage near Bainbridge Island, and at Hope Island near Anacortes and the mouth of the Skagit River.

And rolling in behind those terminations was a wave of support to completely eliminate Atlantic salmon farming.

Fish Farmers Face Foes

Cooke officials challenged the agency findings, and – along with other aquaculture advocates – launched an all-out lobbying effort to thwart the effort to ban salmon aquaculture.

They said many of the existing net pens inherited from Icicle Seafoods were scheduled for upgrading and replacement. They considered the level of criticism and scrutiny over “a single incident” unfair, noting that producing healthy fish and protecting the environment are “paramount” to successful fish farm operations. They also disputed the potential risks cited by fish farm opponents. They labeled the actions leading to the ban as “scare tactics” and called the Cypress Island net pen failure an aberration. The ban, they noted, would take away about 180 fish production and processing jobs, and an $8.5 million payroll. Cooke workers said a shutdown of the salmon net pens is unjustified.

Cooke managers warned that the ban could deter other companies from investing in Washington, and vowed to file a claim for arbitration against the state under the North American Free Trade Agreement to recover its $76 million investment, plus costs and profits.

The Washington Fish Growers Association also lobbied against the ban, including launching a letter campaign from aquaculture consultants and retired scientists – among them the former director of the NOAA Manchester, Washington, laboratory and Washington fish and wildlife commissioner, two former directors of NOAA’s national aquaculture program, a former director of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and the former president of Stolt Sea Farms Washington, Inc. - who say Atlantic salmon farming does no harm to Pacific salmon.

WDFW officials say the industry is certainly not risk-free, but they consider the risks minimal.

No Challenge from NOAA

During seafood Expo North America held in Boston, Massachusetts in March, Chris Oliver, NOAA’s assistant administrator of fisheries, said he wants to maximize fishing opportunities and boost the nation’s seafood production and exports, not only in wild catch fisheries, but by also using the nation’s “aquaculture potential.”

In terms of market value, more than 90 percent of seafood consumed in the US is imported, and half of that is derived from aquaculture. Imports create a huge US seafood trade deficit, which market analysts say topped $14 billion in 2016. Aquaculture currently provides just 21 percent of the seafood produced in the United States by value, or $1.4 billion per year.

Researchers at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center say that “environmentally-friendly” aquaculture is economically important to the Pacific Northwest, providing “immense potential” for seafood production that can “ease harvest pressure on wild fishery resources, create jobs, promote economic growth, and help shrink the trade deficit in fisheries products.” NOAA officials note that aquaculture also supports commercial and recreational fisheries. They say about 40 percent of the salmon caught in Alaska and 80 to 90 percent of those caught in the Pacific Northwest start their lives in hatcheries, adding more than $270 million to the commercial fishery.

Fish farm opponents call that notion disingenuous.

salmon hatcheries, commercial fishermen note, are stocked with native species designed to enhance and restore dwindling fish populations, or support commercial or recreational harvests by upping the numbers of fish available. NOAA Fisheries works with WDFW to make sure hatchery programs don’t jeopardize wild salmon.

Still, despite its growing interest in promoting commercial aquaculture, the agency won’t – actually can’t – challenge Washington’s freshly-spawned fish farm law, because it’s “largely a state government matter” subject to the nation’s constitutional separation of powers between federal and state government, said Michael Rubino, NOAA’s director of aquaculture.

And it doesn’t mean aquaculture is going away.

Trending Toward Farmed Fish

In terms of aquaculture, Oregon is mainly a one-hit wonder, with oyster farms accounting for about 90 percent of its annual aquaculture production. That could change.

Aquaculture is projected to provide two-thirds of the world’s seafood by 2030, and in Oregon, department of agriculture officials are looking at it as a way to enhance the regional economy and provide jobs. A report commissioned by the department says the state should leverage its abundant fresh and marine waters, strong connections between farms and processors, fish-eating traditions, and culinary system open to both large and small producers to develop a sustainable economy built on aquaculture.

Fish farm advocates claim that farm-raised salmon – at one time derided as an unsustainable inferior alternative to their wild counterparts – is gaining parity as farm operators use new techniques and technologies to improve fat content, color, texture, taste, and other characteristics, enticing more chefs, cooks and consumers to choose farmed over wild.

Market analysts note that farmed seafood already accounts for more than half of all seafood consumption, and with 80 to 90 percent of wild-caught salmon originating in fish hatcheries – themselves a prevalent form of aquaculture in Washington and Oregon – farming is likely the key to meeting growing demand.

Attitudes are clearly changing, which observers say makes the Washington decision even more striking. For now, wildness prevails.

“We have done the right thing,” Ranker said after Inslee signed the Washington bill into law. “We have supported our culture and our natural resources.”

The controversial undertow of farmed versus wild salmon, however, remains.


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