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Phase Out Of Atlantic Salmon Farming In Puget Sound Headed To Governor's Desk

A net pen collapse in August 2017 that released several hundred thousand non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound energized industry opponents in the Washington Legislature.
Washington DNR
A net pen collapse in August 2017 that released several hundred thousand non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound energized industry opponents in the Washington Legislature.

The Washington Legislature approved a phase out of Atlantic salmon farming in state waters on Friday and sent the measure to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee, who is expected to sign it.

The state Senate voted 31 to 16 to ban new aquatic leases for Atlantic salmon net pens and to forbid the renewal of existing state leases when they expire. The bill passed the state House by a similarly wide margin in mid-February.

The bipartisan votes came in reaction to a major escape of non-native salmon into Puget Sound last August from the collapse of a Cooke Aquaculture net pen off Cypress Island. Saltwater salmon farms also took heat during the lengthy legislative debate for polluting and potentially spreading disease.

Republicans such as state Sen. Michael Baumgartner complained the legislature overreacted by banning an entire industry.

"You don't just come and slam the door," Baumgartner said during the floor debate Friday. "You know, if it's these guys today, who is it tomorrow? That's not a good message for Washington state business."

"This is not arbitrary," responded Democratic Sen. Maralyn Chase. "These are private companies using public resources - such as water - and relying on nature to provide subsidized sewage disposal."

In recent weeks, Cooke Aquaculture has signaled it may lodge a damage claim under the North American Free Trade Agreement against the state of Washington in excess of $70 million for the lost value of its local operations. Cooke’s longest lease with the state runs through 2023.

Cooke Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson did not mention NAFTA in an emailed statement after the final Senate vote.

"We are deeply disappointed in the action taken by the Legislature today and the potential impact it could have on Washington’s 30-year salmon-farming industry and the more than 600 rural workers and their families that rely upon salmon farming for their livelihoods," Richardson said.

Cooke raises Atlantic salmon at four locations around Western Washington, as well as in Maine, Canada, Chile and Scotland. The family-owned Canadian company took over the Washington locations in 2016 after buying Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods. Cooke is now the only commercial operator of Atlantic salmon net pens in Washington waters.

During the lengthy Senate debate, majority Democrats suggested the company could switch to rearing native Pacific fish in its net pens to preserve the jobs and economic activity.

Senators rejected a Republican amendment endorsed by Cooke that offered an alternative to banning Atlantic salmon aquaculture outright. It would have required Cooke to stock its floating net pens with a single sex of fish to preclude the possibility of reproduction of any who escaped to the wild. 

"The phasing out of industrial ocean fish farms in Washington is a victory for our oceans and coastal communities," reacted Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner for Friends of the Earth, in a statement late Friday. "These floating factory farms pose significant environmental and socioeconomic risks and threaten our already struggling wild, native salmon."

Inslee, a Democrat, voiced support a few weeks ago for phasing out Atlantic salmon aquaculture, calling the risk of another net pen collapse "intolerable."

Oregon, California and Alaska effectively ban saltwater fish farms in their waters. Washington’s native tribes united in calling for Washington state to join that position.

"Our hands go up to all that were involved in championing this issue in the legislature," said Samish Indian Nation Chairman Tom Wooten in a statement Friday night. "We continue to send thoughts to our neighbors in Canada as they fight this same battle in their waters."

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.