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.