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Washington ends commercial net pen fish farming in state waters

Aquaculture Washington State Net pens
David Bergvall/AP
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Washington State Department of Natural Resources
FILE - In this photo provided by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, a crane and boats are anchored next to a collapsed "net pen" used by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to farm Atlantic Salmon near Cypress Island in Washington state on Aug. 28, 2017. Washington is now banning net-pen fish-farming in state waters, citing danger to struggling native salmon. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued an executive order Friday putting an end to such aquaculture.

Washington state's Department of Natural Resources will ban commercial net pen fish farming in Washington waters, following an executive order announced Friday.

“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,” said Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz in a statement.

“Today, I’m announcing an end to the practice.”

The move comes in the same week that the agency opted not to renew the last two remaining leases held by Cooke Aquaculture in Puget Sound. That decision requires Cooke Aquaculture to dismantle its operations by Dec.14.

The order is expected to put a permanent end to all commercial net pen farming on the west coast of the U.S. Franz's order will align Washington’s aquaculture policy with those in Alaska, California and Oregon. Across the Canadian border, British Columbia announced in June the province plans to phase out the practice over the next several years.

Net pen collapse in 2017 planted the seed for new policy 

Opposition to Cooke Aquaculture's operations has been building since 2017, when the Canada-based company’s net pen at Cypress Island collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of nonnative salmon into Puget Sound.

Letters from the agency to Cooke Aquaculture dated Nov. 14 terminated the remaining leases at Hope Island and Rich Passage - saying that the company’s history of contract violations and negligence in Washington waters led to the determination that it would not be in the state’s public interest to continue.

Speaking at a televised press conference Friday on Bainbridge Island at Fort Ward Park, overlooking the company’s facilities in Rich Passage, Franz said she wanted to ensure that for-profit aquaculture can no longer undermine tribal treaty rights or the state’s efforts to safeguard natural resources for future generations.

Denying requests to release these sites based on previous lease violations does not go far enough to protect our waters. That is why my commissioner's order directs staff to implement the necessary rules and policies to forever prevent future leases for net pen fish farming in our waters,” Franz said.  

She was joined at the announcement by the chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, Leonard Forsman, and by Emma Helverson, Executive Director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. Both have led broad-based efforts to put an end to fish farming in Washington waters. Forsman is also president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

Helverson’s organization won a $2.75 million lawsuit against Cooke Aquaculture after its net pen collapse and then led the Our Sound, Our Salmon campaign that demanded Washington join other states on the West Coast and put an end to net pen fish farming in public waters.

Cooke-collapse-DNR36135785103_f2075e5f6e_o_0.jpg
Washington Department of Natural Resources
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Cooke Aquaculture's Cypress Island Atlantic salmon net pen operation after its collapse in August 2017.

Environmental risks of net pen fish farming

Even before Franz’s announcement of plans to pursue the ban, Helverson called the end of Cooke Aquaculture’s leases, “a massive environmental victory.”

She said thousands of individuals, organizations, businesses, tribal nations and elected officials fought hard for years to stop Cooke Aquaculture’s net pen fish farming in state waters.

“Here in Puget Sound, we spend millions of dollars every year trying to protect and restore species that are on the brink of extinction. And when you only have 3% of your wild steelhead remaining. You really have to ask the question, is the risk worth it?” Helverson said.

She said the public, the legislature and the state agency responsible – DNR – are now all on the same page.

“You know, it's just not a risk we're willing to take.”

That risk includes pathogens that come from crowding too many fish together in the unnatural confines of net pens, as well as the concentrated waste they produce in the waters around them. And above all, concerns that if farmed fish escape, they can outcompete wild fish for scarce habitat or even breed with their wild counterparts, diluting the native gene pool.

Helverson said even after Washington’s legislature banned nonnative fish farming in 2018 and Cooke Aquaculture was forced to switch to a native species of steelhead altered to keep it sterile, that risk didn’t go away – because the sterilization process can have a failure rate as high as 1%.

“If we had another escape at the same scale of the 2017 Cypress Island collapse, which was 260,000 fish that escaped...even that 1% would be more fertile female steelhead released into Puget Sound than all of the wild steelhead that exist in Puget Sound,” Helverson said.  

Conflict with tribal treaty rights

“Salmon is the cornerstone of our culture. Everything we do is based around salmon,” said Jeremy ‘JJ’ Wilbur, vice chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, which asked the state in February not to renew Cooke Aquaculture’s lease at Hope Island, in Skagit Bay.

The tribe said the net pen there violates their treaty rights, because it’s blocking one of their traditional fishing areas.

“It's a very sacred location, the Hope Island location to our people, and it's great to have it back,” Wilbur said.

The other lease is in Rich Passage off Bainbridge Island, where the Suquamish Tribe has voiced opposition.

Standing near that facility at the press conference, Forsman echoed the sentiments voiced by Wilbur earlier in the week. He said as chairman, he swore an oath to protect the rights of his tribe, secured in the Treaty of Point Elliott. He said commercial fish farms threatened those rights and the tribe’s traditional way of life - of harvesting salmon and shellfish from clean water.

“That's why we continue to continue to fight this and many other proposals and existing structures in the water, so that we can restore it back as best as we can, to the way it was when our people first were created in this land and this water.”  

He said the state’s support of this policy is an indication of progress made in its partnerships with the tribes.

Cooke Aquaculture said it was surprised and disappointed with the decision not to extend its leases – and that the order to end all commercial net pen fish farming in Washington is "short sighted."

It said that since the unfortunate collapse at Cypress Island in 2017, the company has worked "collaboratively and transparently with regulatory agencies to identify areas of improvement and...ensure that our operations meet and exceed the highest standards."

Earlier this week, company spokesperson Joel Richardson shared a three-page statement outlining its response to the state’s denial of its request to renew its leases, saying the decision doesn’t “responsibly follow the science or judicial precedents.”

The statement said the company is exploring "available options" for its operations and investments in Washington. Richardson declined to comment on whether the company will pursue any legal action.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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