Washington bans net pens for fish farming, citing salmon threat

SEATTLE (AP) — Washington on Friday banned fish farming with net pens in state waters, citing danger to struggling native salmon.

Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued an executive order banning the method of aquaculture, which involves raising fish in large floating pens anchored in water and has been practiced in Puget Sound for more than three decades.

California, Oregon and Alaska have already banned net-pen aquaculture, and Canada is working on a plan to phase it out of British Columbia’s coastal waters by 2025. Proponents say that fish farming is an environmentally friendly way to feed the growing world population; critics argue that it can spread disease to native stocks and degrade the environment.

“As we have seen all too clearly here in Washington, there is no way to safely raise fish in net pens in the open ocean without jeopardizing our struggling native salmon,” Franz said. . “I’m proud to stand with the rest of the West Coast today in saying that our waters are far too important to risk the profits of fish farming.”

Salmon farming is one of the fastest growing food production systems in the world, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. It represents about 70% of the market. In 2018, the World Resources Institute released a report that the industry must more than double by 2050 to meet the seafood needs of 10 billion people.

As of 2016, all net pens in Washington’s marine waters have been owned by the same company, New Brunswick-based Canadian seafood giant Cooke Aquaculture. In a statement earlier this week, after the state announced it would terminate the company’s remaining leases in Puget Sound, the company said it was disappointed.

“Environmental organizations and Commissioner Franz choose to ignore the fact that farmed fish is one of the healthiest and most efficient ways to feed the world’s population with minimal environmental impact and the most carbon footprint. low in all animal protein,” Cooke said. “Farmers work closely with world-renowned scientists from academia, government and the private sector to develop rigorous standards and implement best practices for fish health and environmental protection.”

In 2017, a net pen operated by Cooke off Cypress Island near the San Juan Archipelago collapsed and released 260,000 non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. The escape prompted a frenzied response from the Lummi Indian Tribe, who mobilized their fishing teams to catch tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon before they could mingle or breed with native salmon.

The company argued that the fish were sterile and would simply die without threatening native salmon stocks, but the legislature responded in 2018 and banned the farming of non-native fish in the pens.

Cooke switched to farming native rainbow trout, but many Native American tribes and environmental groups, including the Wild Fish Conservancy, have always been opposed, saying the abnormally large groups of farmed fish spread diseases to wild populations and that their mass feeding and excreta were degrading the marine environment.

Several studies have found young sockeye salmon in British Columbia’s Fraser watershed were infected with higher levels of sea lice after swimming past fish pens, the Seattle Times reported. And in March, an audit found sea lice numbers were about five times the legal limit at a farm in Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Lice can affect the growth of salmon and, in severe cases, lead to death.

“It’s about disease vectors and how they can escape into wild populations,” said Todd Woodard, director of natural resources for the Samish Indian Nation. “When you say, ‘We’re raising native fish,’ the native fish aren’t being raised and bred in those kinds of concentrated environments.”

After the 2017 collapse, the Washington Department of Natural Resources stepped up its inspections of net enclosures. In Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula, the department terminated a net pen lease for failing to maintain the facility in a safe condition and operating in an unauthorized area. Cooke unsuccessfully challenged the decision in court.

And earlier this week, the state terminated Cooke Aquaculture’s last net pen leases, at Rich Passage near Bainbridge Island and near Hope Island in Skagit Bay. The company has until December 14 to finish raising rainbow trout and start deconstructing its equipment.

The decision will force Cooke to kill 332,000 juvenile rainbow trout that were to be stocked in its two remaining net pens next year, the company said.

“This is a big win for everyone who values ​​the Puget Sound ecosystem,” Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman said, according to The Seattle Times. “This action eliminates a detrimental impact on our ancestral waters. The net pens at Rich Passage have … blocked and polluted our fishing grounds for far too long, and we are relieved to know that they will be removed, restoring our waters to a more natural state.