Pushback: Tribes and Companies Defend Fish Farming in Northwest Waters


In November, Washington State Land Commissioner Hilary Franz issued an executive order to shut down net-pen fish farming, which has existed in state waters for 40 years. Cooke Aquaculture, which owns the fish farms, has filed suit, arguing that Franz has exceeded her authority, which belongs to the Legislature. Fish farmers also argue that the science does not support a ban on fish farms. 

Cooke Aquaculture is a Canadian company based in St. John, New Brunswick. In 2016, Cooke paid the bankruptcy estate of Icicle Seafoods $70 million for six salt-water fish farms. Cooke has since closed the farms at Port Angeles and at Cypress Island in the San Juans. Of the remaining four, three are in Rich Passage south of Bainbridge Island, and one is near Hope Island east of Deception Pass. 

The four remaining farms can raise 1.3 million 6-to-8-pound fish a year. For Puget Sound, that’s a lot, though it’s only a fraction of the output in British Columbia, which has more than 75 net-pen farms around Vancouver Island, as discussed in this article by Post Alley colleague Eric Scigliano. More salmon farms exist in Chile, Norway, and Scotland.

In announcing her ban, Commissioner Franz said, “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… Commercial finfish farming is detrimental to salmon, orcas, and marine habitat. I’m proud to stand with the rest of the West Coast today by saying our waters are far too important to risk for fish farming profits.”

Some context here. Profit is how our system works, and in America almost all food production is for profit. Note also the term, “native salmon,” which is not the same as the wild salmon we teach our kids to revere. Of the native salmon in Puget Sound 80 percent come from hatcheries.

Franz’s charge that net-pen farms are jeopardizing wild and hatchery salmon gained momentum in August 2017, when Cooke’s fish farm at Cypress Island, north of Anacortes, was wrecked in a storm. The state said 260,000 salmon escaped.

The fish were Atlantic salmon native to northern Europe. The public fear was that the Atlantics would swim up the rivers and spawn, creating alien fish runs to displace native species — a fear that was stoked when half a dozen of them were caught more than 40 miles up the Skagit River. But that spawning fear didn’t happen. The Atlantics were domesticated fish, used to being fed, and they didn’t know how to forage. Most of the Atlantics caught had empty stomachs. In the wild, they had failed the Darwinian test.

Atlantic salmon have flunked that test everywhere outside of Europe, says Walton Dickhoff, former director of the Environmental and Fisheries Science Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “People tried to introduce Atlantic salmon on the West Coast as far back as the 1920s,” he said. “It failed.” He added: “The Atlantic salmon were probably one of the safest species to grow here.”

The state blames the Cypress Island collapse on poor maintenance, and that blame falls on Cooke and the previous owners, Icicle. Cooke took the loss. It paid a bounty of $30 a fish, mostly to the Lummi Tribe, to catch about 46,000 escaped salmon, and another $1 million for divers to retrieve junk from the sea floor. It paid a $332,000 fine, lost the fish, and lost the farm.

The next session of the state legislature responded to the collapse by banning net pens of non-native species in state waters. Cooke switched to sterile steelhead. The state also required Cooke to monitor the pens with underwater video and to have the structures inspected by marine engineers every two years. These useful improvements are now swept aside by the ban.

The principal other argument against net-pen fish farms in state waters is that fish feces and uneaten food pellets foul the seabed. In its 210-page Biological Opinion, issued in February 2022, the National Marine Fisheries Service said the wastes do degrade the habitat for native fish. The Wild Fish Conservancy, which is campaigning to shut down commercial net-pens, jumped on this. In a press release, it announced that federal biologists had finally admitted that “Puget Sound commercial net pens are harming salmon, steelhead, and other protected fish.”

Actually, the study didn’t say that. It said the fish farms degraded the habitat within 300 feet of the nets. Federal fish biologists concluded: “The isolated effects of Puget Sound commercial net pens on habitat conditions (i.e., water quality, forage, and cover) are likely to be minor and intermittent.” Fish farming will force “no overall declines in population” of native fish.

 Salmon have been in decline because of the spread of houses, stores, parking lots, roads, culverts, bulkheads, storm drains, logging, landfills, and, especially, dams. The problem is what people have done on land. 

Worldwide, about 70 percent of the salmon consumption is now from net pens. Fish farms have their environmental issues, but compared with farms for cattle, pigs, and chickens, they stack up pretty well. Moreover, fish is healthy food, and people eat more of it than can possibly be harvested from the wild. In my view, it is not reasonable to ban it.

Commissioner Franz’s order is not just about salmon, or steelhead. It is about the future of aquaculture. For example, it blocks a planned joint venture by Cooke Aquaculture and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe to build a net-pen farm in Port Angeles harbor in which wastes are consumed by sea cucumbers and kelp. The fish would include black cod — sablefish — a deep-water ocean species with a high oil content and a retail value usually in excess of $20 a pound.

Jim Parsons, CEO of Jamestown Seafood, says black cod is difficult to get started, but with five years of help from federal fish scientists at Manchester (in Kitsap County), biologists have learned how to do it. “It’s a very promising fish,” he says. The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe has also filed suit against the DNR to block Commissioner Franz’s executive order.

Science aside, that order may be a political winner. In 2020, Hilary Franz was reelected Land Commissioner with 56.7 percent of the vote — a slightly greater share than won by Jay Inslee in his reelection as governor. If Inslee should fail to seek a fourth term, our land commissioner could well be a candidate for his seat. Already she has raised more than $250,000 for her next run, including donations from tribes that oppose net pens in Puget Sound. 

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. Hillary is running for Governor. If this, her gender, and forest fires are the best she has, it will be a campaign that looks like our early Vanguard rockets trying to get a satellite into orbit.

  2. The concept of relying on “sea urchins and kelp” to consume net pen waste is scientifically flawed. Left unchecked by their functionally extinct natural predators, sea otters and star fish, purple sea urchins have destroyed 75% of California’s kelp forests and kelp in Washington is in steep decline. Warming sea water retards kelp growth and sea urchins finish the job, destroying critical habitat for a variety of sea creatures including young salmon. This is like hiring a wolf to herd your sheep.

    • The article states “sea cucumbers” not sea urchins. Sea cucumbers feed on benthic detritus, the biological stuff like fish poop, decomposing algae and dead sea creatures that constantly fall to the sea floor in the natural environment. Think of them as giant earth worms that feed on decomposing nutrients in the soil. These organic components are assimilated into the environment by all the detritovores (animals that feed on dead or decomposing organic matter) in the marine environment. The marine ecosystem relies on these organisms to recycle the decomposing organic material back into life. Shrimp, crabs, amphipods, sea cucumbers, polychaete worms, and numerous fish species all perform this vital function of detritus recycling. Without them, the organisms that rely on them as their food source would not be able to exist. No nutrients, no life.

      • Kevin, We are still losing kelp to sea urchins are we not? That being so, kelp would not seem to be a reliable long term component in the process.

        • Kelp is absolutely a vital component in the process. Why would you not try to grow kelp if you could? You just stated we are losing kelp. Why not grow native kelps and other marine algae on the fish pen raft and surrounding anchor lines? Some of these can become seed stock that may reestablish lost kelp beds in open niche areas. Think about what happens on land. The rabbit population booms (like the sea urchins), eats all the plants, then runs out of food. Out of food, they will either die off, move on to another area or some combination of the two. The open niche created by the rabbits is then filled by another type of plant. I’m simplifying things, but because kelp beds for whatever reason seem to be disappearing, you have less and less mature kelp in a given area to reseed some of these areas. Why not grow some kelp on the net pens and allow some to mature and potentially help reseed some of the surrounding areas. Kelp, marine algae and phytoplankton all utilize the available soluble organic nutrients from seawater such as nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon (in the form of CO2). The net pen raft and anchor lines are all available substrates (open niches) that can be colonized by algae and marine invertebrates. Fish excrete nitrogen and CO2 as by-product of their metabolism. Growing both algae and detritovores like sea cucumbers can facilitate the uptake of some of the organic nutrients such as nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus.
          Algae culturing is increasingly being looked at as a way to sequester CO2 as most of the atmospheric CO2 ends up dissolving into the oceans. This grown algae can be consumed directly and used as an organic nutrient source for terrestrial agriculture since it contains these vital nutrients.
          If we want to eat it, we better learn how to grow it.

  3. Bruce:

    First of all, about the pens Cooke and the Jamestown Tribe want to put in the Port Angeles Harbor, those waters were tested in 1997 by Region 10 EPA for a range of toxins/hazardous wastes and a more Harbor limited study by WA State Ecology around 2008 for dioxins. Remember Port Angeles was a mill town and there are legacy contaminants in the Harbor sediments. These waters are so toxic that the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose cultural fishing waters are in the Pt Angeles Harbor, stopped taking seafood from them a while back. Additionally, there are Navy ships and a fuel storage there, making the waters worse. Commercial aquaculture should not be permitted in these waters. Consumers should not be sold these farmed-raised animals. PS: Franz made Cooke remove the P.A. Harbor pens because they were partly over areas not leased to them and, as well, foam from their operation was breaking off and floating in the water. Cypress Island pens weren’t the only ones not being kept up.

    Second, ME has had trouble with Cooke. And B.C. finally wised up after tribes helped Dr. Alexandra Morton to have salmon pens removed in the Broughton Archipelago and elsewhere. The removal of pens in B.C. waters continues. For an in-depth understanding of this industry, read Morton’s book, Not On My Watch.

    These pens have polluted the waters of Italy, Japan, Germany Scotland and elsewhere. Think for a moment the cost to wildlife dependent on this habitat taken over by these thousands of pens.

    Why would you support diseased farmed fish inclusive with bits of plastic sold to consumers?

    If you had one of these farms in front of your home, you’d better understand. And the value of your home would likely drop.

    And if you want to know what is happening in WA State with farmed shellfish, contact me. We’ve lost one-third of of our State’s coastlines to this plastic-based, polluting industry; hence the wildlife have lost at least one-third of their habitat.

    Leave the waters for the wild and the habitat will clean and the wild will return.

    • Port Angeles has a deep-water harbor of 2,000 acres. The Department of Ecology’s study of the harbor has three areas with significant contamination of the seabed. Two small areas, both at the far western end of the harbor, are most seriously contaminated: one, of 25 acres, is an isolated shallow-water lagoon, and the other, of 37 acres, at the far western end of the harbor, which is the most contamination. In these two areas, Ecology proposes to put down sand and gravel to cap the sediment. The third study area is 1,100 acres, about half the harbor. This much larger area has deeper water and is less contaminated. In this area, Ecology proposes to let nature recover on its own. Last of all is the area outside these three zones and farthest away from the sources of contamination: the area just inside of Ediz Hook. Here the water is deepest: 170 feet. It is the safest place to grow fish. And that is where Cooke’s net pens were.
      Ecology’s study says the pollution of concern in Port Angeles Harbor is in the sediments on the sea floor, not in the water. Because surface water is flushed out by tides from the Strait every two to four days, and deep water every 5 to 9 days, water quality in the Harbor, says Ecology’s study, is much the same as in the strait. Which, presumably, is why Ecology made no objection to raising fish there.
      But you know all this. You have read the study and have commented publicly on it more than any other person. You don’t like the study. You think it’s not protective enough. You are free to disagree with the Department of Ecology, but you are arguing against the government’s biologists.
      Ms. Schanfald, you ask, “Why would you support diseased farmed fish inclusive with bits of plastic sold to consumers?” I have consumed farmed Atlantic salmon and farmed steelhead a number of times. I never found any plastic in it. I have never consumed any farmed fish that appeared to be diseased, or any that made me sick. All the fish I eat at my dinner table has been delicious. Maybe I have been fooled, and there are risks I don’t know about. But there are risks in eating food from anywhere.
      Enemies of fish farming seem to be judging it on a no-risk standard when they compare net pen aquaculture with the marine environment of 150 years ago. We don’t have that world, and it’s not reasonable to want it back. There are 8 billion people in our world. If you would have less fish farming, or none at all, you are asking to have more of something else: cattle feedlots, pig farms, chicken farms, dairy farms, or more fishing boats burning more diesel fuel to scour the sea for more wild fish. Which is better?


      • You don’t see the disease at the table, that’s no surprise. But for example, when Cooke’s Cypress Island pen failed, it had only 305,000 of the 369,312 fish that had been moved to it, due to “mortality during the grow out period.” The 17% of those fish that up and died due to ill health didn’t go to the grocery store, but wouldn’t that have been educational?

  4. Ramsay is late to the game on this story. Cooke and Icicle are recent speculators in a long, ugly game run by European-financed exploiters who initially were permitted by their governments to gamble with the marine environment. In Washington, fish raised in “pens,” were not profitable, even with cheap permits issued by the state. Money was made back by investors via the sale of equipment and fish pellets used to feed the captive animals of manipulated origins.

    This awful business was first pitched in Washington in the mid-1980s and supported by the late Gov. Booth Gardner as a job-creating cottage industry to employ out-of-work WSU biology grads and fisherfolk. What a joke. The person credited with thinking up this awful idea was a UW prof named Loren Donaldson whose other bright idea decades ago was to use a nuclear bomb to create an artificial harbor in Alaska. Norwegians bought Donaldson’s fish pen vision and launched the commercial Atlantic salmon pen industry, devastating Norwegian and Scottish marine environments. Even conservatives now have figured it out. A recent edition of one of the UK’s most politically right-wing publications, Country Life, gave this headline to its article on smoked salmon – “Ah, Fish farms. Not so much the elephant in the room, but the great white shark in the salmon cage.”

    • Dear Ms. Spaeth – – – I take exception to your vilifying characterization of Dr. Loren Donaldson. I happen to have had the good fortune of being a graduate student at the UW College of Fisheries when Dr. Donaldson was engaged in fish culture research on Pacific salmon and trout. His research and teaching were highly respected by colleagues here and around the world. Many of the advances in fish farming today had their genesis in research by Dr. Donaldson and his students, one of whom was the late Dr. Conrad Mahnken who managed NOAA’s Manchester Laboratory and was a strong proponent of expanding aquaculture production in Puget Sound.
      You also state that it was Loren Donaldson’s bright idea decades ago to use a nuclear bomb to create an artificial harbor in Alaska – – – wrong again. You obviously haven’t read Dan O’Neill’s book, “The Firecracker Boys – – – H-bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement”. If you had, you would have known that the person who convinced President Eisenhower to launch Project Chariot, the name given to this experimental harbor excavation project, was Dr. Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb. Dr. Donaldson became involved through his UW research laboratory which was awarded a contract from the AEC to undertake certain biological pre-impact surveys and studies of the Project Chariot experiment. At that time I was afforded the opportunity to be a part of Dr. Donaldson’s research team – – – a most interesting and professionally-rewarding experience.
      As a former marine biologist and scientist, I greatly appreciate Bruce Ramsey’s excellent distillation of the issues surrounding salmon net pen farming in Puget Sound. His assessment is “right on”. Mr. Ramsey rightfully points out that the science is supportive of properly-sited and managed salmon net pens in Puget Sound. Recently released comprehensive reports by NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Departments of Fish and Game concluded that such operations DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT, pose a threat to Puget Sound nor to our native salmon. Considering that the US imports almost 90% of the seafood we consume, we need to support and expand the production of seafood at home – – – not eliminate salmon farming in Puget Sound which will only serve to increase our salmon imports from afar.

  5. Don’t confuse us with the facts, Bruce. Everyone knows fish farming is bad… Unfortunately, Franz’s ruling is just another example of an anti-business decision based on ideology instead of critical thinking and objectivity. This isn’t an issue about ‘what’, it’s about ‘how’ and ‘where’. Killing off an industry because you can’t figure out how to properly and fairly regulate it may have political appeal to some, but we all still need to eat.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.