Collapsed fish pens could shift the debate over Atlantic salmon farms

UPDATE: Aug. 30

Democratic members of Washington state’s congressional delegation are calling on federal agencies to take immediate steps to minimize damage from the net pen collapse and release of Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island. Read the news release.

“Pacific salmon are central to our economy, our culture, and our environment in the Pacific Northwest and are a critical part of marine and estuarine ecosystems in Washington state,” the letter states. “Most concerning is the threat farmed Atlantic salmon pose to the wild Pacific salmon populations stocks in Puget Sound. Farmed salmon tend to be larger and could outcompete wild salmon for critical resources, such as prey and preferred habitat, which is important for spawning. Tribes, fishermen, and state agencies are working to respond to the escapement, but the scale of the release calls for immediate and direct federal response….”

Meanwhile, a public hearing about the expansion of the Port Angeles net pen operation has been cancelled at the request of the owner, Cooke Aquaculture. Read the letter from Steve Gray (PDF 155 kb), Clallam County’s deputy planning director.
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The recent collapse of salmon pens near the San Juan Islands could become a turning point in the war against salmon farming that is being waged by environmental groups in Puget Sound.

Yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz announced a moratorium on new state leases or permits for any fish farms using Atlantic salmon. The moratorium will remain in place until state officials can fully review the escape of more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon from net pens near Cypress Island, according to a joint announcement (PDF 107 kb).

The video, by Glenn Farley and Travis Pittman of KING 5 News, was posted Friday.

The owner of the pens, Cooke Aquaculture, has applications pending to move and expand its net pen operation near Port Angeles to an area 1.8 miles offshore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Cooke, a family-owned company, acquired all of the salmon farms in Puget Sound from Icycle Seafoods last year. The deal was touted as a way to infuse capital and modernize operations on the West Coast.

“The deal will enhance the family’s investments in both the wild fishery and the aquaculture sectors, making them leaders in the U.S. salmon farming sector and a major player in the Alaskan salmon fishery,” said a news release about the acquisition. See the story by Cliff White in “SeafoodSource.”

Perhaps the company did not have time to upgrade its facilities to reduce the risk of the net pens collapsing at Cypress Island and other farming operations. In a news release (PDF 251 kb), Cooke said it had applied for permits to update its Cypress Island site. Still, this latest incident cannot instill confidence in the company nor the salmon farming industry as a whole.

In fact, one could argue that that the company’s extensive “Fish Escape Prevention Plan” (PDF 1.4 mb) and Operations Plan (2.4 mb) should have raised red flags for the company. Cooke cited unusual tides and currents as contributing factors in the pens’ collapse, despite the fact that these tide levels are seen several times each year and stronger currents can be anticipated at times.

Cooke proudly proclaims its commitment to the environment on the company’s home page. But shooting itself in the foot on Cypress Island will leave a bad feeling for many Puget Sound residents. For environmental groups, this event will provide ammunition in their effort to stop the expansion of net pens in Puget Sound and phase out their use entirely.

It is often pointed out that Washington is the only state on the West Coast that allows salmon farming. (See “Our Sound, Our Salmon.” Meanwhile, a serious debate over the pros and cons of industrial-scale aquaculture goes on and on in British Columbia, where more than 100 salmon farms are well established. Take a look at reporter Gordon Hoekstra’s story in the Vancouver Sun.

The war on salmon farms has been waging for years on both sides of the border. While battles ought to be won or lost based on credible information, I’ve seen facts distorted to fit political goals on both sides of the argument.

Now the Cypress Island incident will raise the profile of the debate in Washington state. Let’s hope that the investigation called for by Gov. Inslee and Commissioner Franz will lead to findings that go beyond the question of why the net pens collapsed and look at the overall risks and benefits of keeping these salmon farms around.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, told me in an email that he is working today to sample 50,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon that escaped from the Cypress Island net pens. Experts will be looking for viruses, parasites and stomach contents.

I believe the information about stomach contents will be particularly valuable, because of concerns that the escaped fish could be consuming wild salmonids — including young chinook and steelhead, both of which are listed as threatened species. Obviously, we don’t have enough out-migrating chinook and steelhead as it is. (You may wish to review my recent story about salmon recovery in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

Meanwhile, Wild Fish Conservancy, a staunch opponent of salmon farming, has filed notice that it intends to sue Cooke Aquaculture for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“The Conservancy is deeply disheartened by Cooke Aquaculture’s glaring negligence, negligence which has led to an environmental disaster of epic proportion,” states a news release (PDF 115 kb) from the organization. “The needless escape of up to 305,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound represents a dire threat to already imperiled wild fish populations, beloved marine mammal species, and the fragile Puget Sound ecosystem at large, and Wild Fish Conservancy fears impacts to these critical aspects of our region will be felt for years to come.”

The 60-day “letter of intent” (PDF 1.9 mb) from Wild Fish Conservancy outlines a number of alleged violations of federal law resulting from the release of Atlantic salmon and the management of debris. The group says it will seek monetary penalties of up to $52,000 a day, as provided by law, and “injunctive relief to prevent further violations.”

When I asked Kurt what he thought the lawsuit could accomplish, he wrote, “Simply speaking, I believe It’s in the best interest of our sound, our salmon and future generations to pursue all legal avenues to quickly remove Atlantic salmon net pens from Washington’s waters.”

The group — which is part of Our Sound, Our Salmon — is planning an on-the-water protest off the south end of Bainbridge Island on Sept. 16. See “Flotilla: saying no to Atlantic salmon net pens.”

In response to the Cypress Island incident, an “incident command” structure has been set up by the Washington state departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology, along with the Office of the Governor and Emergency Management Division. The idea is to share information and make joint decisions about the cleanup operation.

“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon…,” Gov. Inslee said in a statement. “Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again.

“I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters,” he added.

A new website called “Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Pen Break” will be the distribution point for public information — including “situation updates” from Cook Aquaculture, “Next steps” from DNR, minutes from agency conferences, news releases and other documents.

The Clallam County Hearing Examiner will hold a hearing on Sept. 7 regarding the proposed relocation and expansion of the Port Angeles net pens. Many documents related to that application and Cooke Aquaculture operations can be found on the website titled Clallam County Online Permit System. Click on the permit number for American Gold Seafoods.

5 thoughts on “Collapsed fish pens could shift the debate over Atlantic salmon farms

  1. It is interesting that land based systems with the recycling of waste products are not being aggressively pushed as legitimate alternatives to the net pens.
    The Conservation Fund has promoted significant efforts in this area and, if they can be believed, are on the cusp of commercial viability. This seems to be the right time to introduce this technology

    There are farmers in middle America using closed systems for other fish. It’s beginning to work.

  2. Years ago, similar pens collapsed and released a lot of these salmon in the Manchester area. Can Mr. Dunagan point out a single negative lasting effect from that incident? His concern about these escaped fish eating salmonids and steelhead is laughable. We protect seals, sea lions and many birds that feed on these, and no one cares a wit. This is all anti fish pen folks making a story out of an incident for all it’s worth. Fish pens are in use all over the world, and if they were as risky and dangerous as they would have us believe, they would not be in operation today.

  3. UPDATE: Aug. 30

    Democratic members of Washington state’s congressional delegation are calling on federal agencies to take immediate steps to minimize damage from the net pen collapse and release of Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island. Read the news release.

    “Pacific salmon are central to our economy, our culture, and our environment in the Pacific Northwest and are a critical part of marine and estuarine ecosystems in Washington state,” the letter states. “Most concerning is the threat farmed Atlantic salmon pose to the wild Pacific salmon populations stocks in Puget Sound. Farmed salmon tend to be larger and could outcompete wild salmon for critical resources, such as prey and preferred habitat, which is important for spawning. Tribes, fishermen, and state agencies are working to respond to the escapement, but the scale of the release calls for immediate and direct federal response….”

    Meanwhile, a public hearing about the expansion of the Port Angeles net pen operation has been cancelled at the request of the owner, Cooke Aquaculture. Read the letter from Steve Gray (PDF 155 kb), Clallam County’s deputy planning director.

  4. Please show us a shred of evidence (i.e. data) that there was any harm caused by fish farming and the escaped Atlantic Salmon. I find a lot of rhetoric from companies that compete with farm raised salmon but I’ve yet to see any hard data that indicates that farm raised salmon harm the environment. I am a environmentally responsible person that simply wants facts…. not emotional or profit motivated information.

    1. Go to Google Scholar–a search engine to search peer-reviewed scientific articles and type this in the search box “harm caused by fish farming and the escaped Atlantic Salmon” straight from your question. Other keywords will work too. You can avoid a lot of the emotional or biased articles and go straight to the science.

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