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Washington tribe tests its rights to commercial net pen fish farming

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Washington State Department of Natural Resources
A net pen fish farm in Port Angeles, Wash.

An executive order from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources earlier this month aims to end commercial net pen fish farming in Washington’s public waters.

Cooke Aquaculture has been ordered to dismantle its operations in Puget Sound and Skagit Bay – and told its leases will not be renewed. But it has a key partner in its fight to remain here.

In 2019, the Canada-based company launched a joint venture with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, to farm two species of native fish in net pens in Port Angeles Harbor. A lawsuit delayed operations, but it’s resolved now and they’re forging ahead with the tribe.

“For us in the Northwest, aquaculture is a way of life,” said Ron Allen, the chairman and CEO of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

Allen noted that indigenous cultures in the Northwest have long supplemented natural stocks of shellfish and fish with innovations such as clam gardens. For him, the use of aquaculture to power up his tribe’s Salish Fish enterprise with Cooke Aquaculture is a logical next step.

He said the seafood production that most tribes in the region rely on is under threat, because of everything from pollution to climate change to global competition.

“So, aquaculture is a way to mitigate that, that way of life and keep you in the seafood industry and still do it in a responsible way,” Allen said.

The partnership with Cooke Aquaculture

Allen said Cooke Aquaculture’s past missteps in Washington, including the 2017 net pen collapse that spilled of hundreds of thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound, came as a result of dilapidated equipment that they purchased from the prior operator when they took over Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods.

For Allen, Cooke represents the best in the business and he believes they can be trusted as good stewards of the ocean resources they rely on. And Cooke insists that science is on their side.

"A recent Federal Biological Opinion and a recent Washington Supreme Court decision both reaffirm the state of the science that fish farming does not have an adverse impact on the environment," reads a company statement in response to DNR's rejection of its last two leases in Washington waters.

Letters of termination sent to Cooke Aquaculture in early November detail a history of contract violations with the state, including negligence in their fish farming operations.

Officials also determined that the company's operations could pose risks to the environment because feeding fish in concentrated areas releases nutrients and organic matter that can contribute to algae production. Concentrated fish feces can degrade the ocean floor environment. And there is concern about the spread of disease, from farmed fish into the wild.

Despite those risks, the executive order issued by Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz on Nov. 17 has a carve-out clause at the end. It directs staff to protect tribal sovereignty and treaty rights as they write new rules about commercial net pens.

Testing the carve-out clause

Allen sees an opportunity in the closing language of Franz's executive order. He said the language is a bit vague, but he thinks the commissioner wants to recognize tribes' treaty rights to cultivate fish in commercial net pens.

“So now we're going to test her, because we have swapped out the permit - from Cooke to Jamestown – under our Salish Fish banner,” Allen said. “We're going after our pens.”

He said they’d like to use the 300,000 juvenile steelhead that Cooke Aquaculture has in the net pens it’s been ordered to shut down by Dec. 14. Rather than seeing these fish – worth “millions of dollars” – euthanized, the tribe would like to put them into the Port Angeles Harbor pens.

Allen is also hopeful that Salish Fish can take over the newer net pens Cooke currently has at Hope Island and move them out of Skagit Bay. Allen said if all goes well, they could be up and running by mid- to late 2023. And he’s been reaching out to other tribes to talk about expanding into other areas.

However, it’s not clear exactly how the state will interpret tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, as it writes new rules for commercial aquaculture.

Other Washington tribes oppose the practice

Several tribes around the Salish Sea have vehemently and publicly opposed Cooke’s operations, including the Lummi, who were hit hardest by the 2017 net pen collapse. The Swinomish fought to oust Cooke from sacred waters off Hope Island, where Cooke’s operations blocked the tribe from its usual and accustomed fishing areas.

The Suquamish Tribe campaigned for the shutdown of Cooke’s net pens in Rich Passage off Bainbridge Island. This culminated in their Chairman Leonard Forsman — who is also president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians — hosting the press conference to announce the state’s executive order against commercial net pens.

DNR said they are considering the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe's lease application for Port Angeles Harbor, now that the lawsuit regarding that property is resolved. But in an email, DNR spokesperson Joe Smilie noted that the operation will also need permits from several other state, federal and local agencies before DNR can make a final determination.

He also made it clear in emailed comments that the agency will do what it can to enforce the new ban.

“Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz remains resolute that commercial finfish net pens in public waters are not in the best interest of Washington state,” Smilie said.

Cooke Aquaculture isn't ready to give up

In statements responding to DNR's termination of its leases, Cooke Aquaculture insists it had been working with DNR to improve its operations. It called the executive order "short sighted" and in emails to KNKX, noted that there are dozens of net pens in use to rear fish throughout the state, associated with hatcheries.

DNR countered that these are not commercial. But Cooke said the regulations that govern them are the same – and will continue to apply to the company as it moves forward with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

“We intend to explore all available options for our operations and investments in Washington,” said Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson Joel Richardson, in an email.

Corrected: December 1, 2022 at 4:23 PM PST
Corrected spelling of Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in several instances.
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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