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Fish Farm Firm Flouts Foes

Cooke Aquaculture gets approval to transfer 800,000 juvenile Atlantic salmon to its two remaining Puget Sound sites for growing-out process.

 

November 1, 2018

Cooke Aquaculture's Orchard Rocks Atlantic salmon farm is located in Rich Passage near Bainbridge Island, where 400,000 juvenile fish are scheduled to spend about 16 months growing to market size. WDFW officials approved the company's August request to move the fish to the net pen facility from Cooke's Scatter Creek hatchery in Rochester, Washington. Another 400,000 juveniles will go to the Hope Island site near the mouth of the Skagit River. Photo courtesy of WDNR.

For an international maritime aquaculture giant, it's an early yuletide bonus. To fish farm foes, it's a "nightmare before Christmas."

After what they say was an extremely strict vetting process, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officials issued a permit in late August to Cooke Aquaculture, authorizing the Canada-based firm to transfer 800,000 one-year-old farmed Atlantic salmon from the company's Scatter Creek hatchery in Rochester, Washington to its two remaining net pen operations in Puget Sound. About 400,000 juveniles will go to the Hope Island site near the mouth of the Skagit River, and another 400,000 to the Orchard Rocks site in Rich Passage off the southern end of Bainbridge Island.

WDFW officials say they issued the permit "after working to ensure Cooke had met all of the state's requirements for fish health."

Ken Warheit, the agency's fish health manager, said they had no basis to deny Cooke's application submitted at the beginning of August. Sample testing of the fish revealed no health issues, including negative results for all forms of the fish virus known as PRV.

"We worked cooperatively with their fish and wildlife department through the most rigorous screening ever to ensure the fish met all of the state's requirements," said Joel Richardson, Cooke's public relations VP, noting that they also worked with other state agencies "to document the suitability of those facilities to receive these fish."

The approval follows in the wake of the agency's denial in May of a similar request to transfer fish into net pens after agency folks detected an unfamiliar PRV strain in a different batch of 800,000 juveniles at Cooke's hatchery. Company workers culled the infected fish. While long aware of a particular strain of PRV that affects both wild and hatchery salmon in Pacific waters, Warheit said the "exotic strain" discovered in May created "an unknown risk" that made the transfer "unacceptable." Cooke's request also proposed putting the fish into net pens that had not been empty for at least 30 days, which contradicts requirements in the facilities management plan.

The PRV discovery prompted agency managers to initiate first-ever testing of selected state hatchery facilities in Puget Sound and the lower Columbia River to determine whether returning hatchery salmon carry the unfamiliar PRV strain.

Meanwhile, Cooke's new batch of Atlantic juveniles is scheduled to arrive soon after the mandatory 30-day fallow period at the designated pens. Even under ordinary circumstances, such a transfer would draw attention from fish farm opponents. But with the approval coming almost exactly one year after the collapse of Cooke's net pen facility in Deepwater Bay off Cypress Island, the pending transfer could heighten tensions between the embattled company and those who oppose maritime aquaculture.

Bitter Broadsides

The drama began in August 2017 when the nearly complete structural failure in Deepwater Bay spewed an estimated 160,000 to 263,000 live farmed salmon, fish carcasses, and tons of debris into Puget Sound. After the mishap, three state agencies – WDFW, Natural Resources (DNR), 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, citing "miscommunication and misunderstandings," and filed an appeal in Clallam County Superior Court. State officials are allowing Cooke to harvest existing salmon there until 2019. Hilary Franz, the state's commissioner of public lands, terminated the lease at the Cypress Island farm on February 2, 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. The termination covered all three sites at Cypress Island, which operated under one lease.

The state also fined Cooke $332,000 for water-quality violations.

The lease terminations left the company with only its locations in Rich Passage and at Hope Island, where the current massive school of juveniles is headed.

Washington joins Oregon, California, and Alaska in effectively banning Atlantic salmon net pen aquaculture. 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.

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

Cooke Aquaculture – a Canada-based, family-owned corporation with operation in Canada, Europe, South America, Japan, and the United States – harvests annual revenue of almost $2 billion. Company officials vigorously challenged the state agency findings.

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 net pens is unjustified.

Cooke – along with other aquaculture advocates and allies – has launched an all-out effort to thwart the salmon marine aquaculture ban, and those efforts have spawned competing claims and lawsuits.

Cooke managers warned that the ban could deter other companies from investing in Washington, and vowed to file a claim for mandatory arbitration against the state under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to recover its $76 million investment, plus costs and profits. The trilateral trade agreement requires governments in Canada, Mexico, and the United States to treat foreign investors as favorably as domestic investors. Joel Richardson noted that Cooke "isn't the first" to have net failures and accidental releases of Atlantic salmon into Washington's state waters, but when prior American-owned fish farms had escapes, state officials did little or nothing about it.

"Our company and our employees follow best aquaculture practices and farm management plans to prepare the net pens for fish transfer," says Richardson, noting that Atlantic salmon are "scientifically proven to be the most suitable species to farm" because they don't interbreed with wild Pacific salmon, do not compete with local species, and state regulatory agencies have never documented a single example of the disease transfer from farmed salmon to wild salmon.

Canada's government weighed in, with Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc noting they understand concerns surrounding aquaculture, and "are committed to science and evidence-based decision making."

Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association said the Washington decision is based on "an emotional response to a single mass escape at one farm." Noting that they "do things differently" there, he pointed to the British Columbia fish farming industry that employs 6,600 people and contributes $1.5 billion to the economy, and has invested in technology and equipment to reduce escapes, with all farms certified by an independent entity.

Their United States counterparts agree.

The Washington Fish Growers Association 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.

"We call on our esteemed elected representatives to delay any decisions regarding the future of salmon farming in Washington until the scientific community, represented in this state by some of the world's leading aquaculture and fisheries scientists and researchers in the fields of fish culture, genetics, nutrition, and fish behavior, has had an opportunity to present science in a clear and objective light- rather than in a climate fueled by fear and propaganda," they wrote.

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

Commercial fishermen and others concerned about potentially detrimental effects on Puget Sound's fragile ecosystem and already imperiled wild salmon fishery disagree.

State legislators chose to phase out the industry because of concerns about escapes of the fish from the farms, and the possibility of competition with fragile wild stocks and spread of disease. While scientific research so far has shown low risk, commercial fishery managers and conservation group leaders say little research has actually been done in Washington waters or elsewhere about the effects of escaped Atlantics on native Pacific salmon.

Many, if not most, Pacific Northwest folks say they never fully accepted Atlantic salmon aquaculture in the region, and likely never will. They perceived Cooke's response to the 2017 net pen failure and its aftermath as "unsympathetic" based on greed, which only heightened public concerns about fish farms.

Still, sate agency managers, who say they are working with Cooke to improve the response to any potential future escapes, note that aquaculture is not going away, despite public opinion and the Washington ban.

It's A Wild World – Or Is It?

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.

Aquaculture, however, is projected to provide two-thirds of the world's seafood by 2030. 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. In terms of aquaculture, Oregon is currently a single product supplier, with oyster farms accounting for about 90 percent of its annual aquaculture production.

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.

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."

One of Cooke Aquaculture's three commercial Atlantic salmon farms near Cypress Island in Deepwater Bay collapsed August 20, 2017, releasing an estimated 160,000 to 263,000 farmed salmon, along with tons of debris, into Puget Sound. The collapse spawned an outcry that led the state legislature and governor to enact a controversial ban on non-native fish farms in state waters, phasing out existing operations by 2025. Photo courtesy of WDFW.

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 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.

Commercial fishermen and others said the timing of the latest transfer of Cooke's Atlantic invaders – wrapped as it is around the Halloween season in October and November – is especially fitting, since farmed fish "masquerade as real salmon." What fish farm advocates consider a treat, they consider a trick.

Still, attitudes are changing, which observers say makes the Washington decision even more striking. For now, wildness prevails, but the controversial undertow of farmed versus wild salmon remains.

 
 

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