Under fire after a collapse and escape last summer, Atlantic salmon net-pen farming would be banned in Washington under legislation that will be filed by Sen. Kevin Ranker this coming session.
The legislation would allow existing state leases for the eight Atlantic net-pen farms now operating in Washington to run out by 2025. No permits for new farms would be granted, and no renewals for existing leases would be allowed. The bill also would require state agencies that regulate net-pen farming to keep a tighter watch on operations.
The net-pen escape was a wake-up call, said Ranker, D-Orcas Island. He called the escape of more than 100,000 Atlantics into Puget Sound “a disaster,” yet not even his biggest concern about the industry.
“This has been a long time coming,” Ranker said. “I am more concerned with the day-to-day impact of invasive-species aquaculture of Atlantic salmon than the escape. It woke us up to the fact that there is a big problem here.”
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Cooke Aquaculture, the owner and operator of the failed net-pen and all of Washington’s Atlantic salmon farms, is sure to fight the ban. Cooke is a multibillion-dollar, privately held corporation based in Canada with operations also in Europe, South America, Japan and the eastern United States .
Cooke’s operations in Washington are small, with just over 80 employees. The state took in $238,139 in rent and production fees from Cooke in 2016, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The department holds the leases, expiring on a range of dates from March 2022 to December 2025, for its eight farms in four locations.
The company purchased those farms from Icicle Seafoods last year, with an eye toward expansion. Washington’s waters offer a distinct business opportunity for Cooke because Alaska and California ban Atlantic salmon net-pen aquaculture. Oregon has no Atlantic salmon net-pen operations, and its coastline is not as suitable. Washington has the cold water, swift currents and coastline Cooke wants and needs.
But Puget Sound also is an imperiled ecosystem, home to threatened and endangered animals and fragile native Pacific salmon runs that Washington residents have spent millions of tax dollars trying to revive.
Moreover, Washington is home to dozens of tribes with treaty-protected salmon fisheries and commercial fishermen and ardent recreational fishermen, all with one common interest: more and healthier native salmon runs in Puget Sound.
Perhaps at stake is the state’s very identity, as a place always and forever of wild salmon, Jeremiah Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, told state lawmakers convened in Olympia on Wednesday for a fact-finding session on the net-pen collapse.
“This is the Evergreen state,” Julius said. “We support the gift we all share here. This is what Washington state stands for and is known for: wild, native salmon.”
State agency managers told lawmakers they are still assessing environmental effects from the spill. So far, Atlantics have not been found on the spawning grounds, and the fish that escaped were sexually immature and therefore unable to crossbreed with native salmon, or reproduce with one another. The fish also appear not to have fed and were starving to death.
State agency staff also said several fish had been tested and found to be free of diseases or parasites, including sea lice. More testing is underway to examine the area of the sea bed where the net pen failed, subjecting it to not only the usual fish food and fish excrement but a rain of debris from dead and dying fish, noted Rich Doenges, section manger of the water quality program at the state Department of Ecology.
Lessons learned already are that the escape needed to be treated as a spill, said Dennis Clark, assistant division manager of the aquatic resources division of the Department of Natural Resources. “We need to be more aggressive, much as is done for oil spills or wildfires,” he told the committee. Instead, agencies were slow to notify tribes of the fish escape, and took a week to set up a state emergency response.
As a result, 100,000 of the Atlantics ultimately got away, despite the Lummi Nation alone catching 400,000 pounds of the fish — an effort for which the tribe still has not been fully compensated, Julius said.
Even basics, such as ensuring Cooke had the correct contact numbers to alert regulators in an emergency and a coordinated response by agencies, were not in hand as the event unfolded over a weekend in August, agency staff said.
Under questioning from lawmakers, Cooke managers said they still don’t know what caused the pen holding 305,000, 8- to 10-pound Atlantic salmon to fail. The same pen also had serious issues just one month before the collapse.
Innes Weir, general manager for Cooke Aquaculture in Washington, said he had never in 30 years experienced anything like what happened at the farm as it twisted and fell apart.
Cooke managers said headlines since the escape don’t represent what Cooke is as a company. “We are fish people,” said Michael Szemerda, Cooke’s vice president, saltwater operations. “Growing healthy fish and care for the environment is paramount to us.”
The July event, in which the same pen became partially unmoored, requiring extensive emergency repairs, seems connected to the August collapse: “We believe these events are linked,” Amy Windrope, a deputy director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife told lawmakers.
The net-pen collapse is still under investigation.
The company initially blamed the failure on unusually high tides from the solar eclipse but backed off that claim, which was unsupported by tide data. It also estimated the initial escape at 4,500 fish.
The company has sought collaboration with the Lummi Nation, and even offered to pay the tribe more per captured escaped fish if the tribe would not bring up a net-pen ban — an offer the tribe icily refused.
Cooke has no consent from the tribe to be in its territorial waters, Julius told lawmakers, and the Atlantic salmon pens harm their treaty-protected rights to fish.
“Legislation is needed to protect the Salish Sea,” Julius said. “There needs to be a stop to breeding invasive pollutants in our waters.”