Tag Archives: Wild Fish Conservancy

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.

Forest battle continues over defining the upper bounds of fish habitat

A long-running battle over how to manage potential fish habitat on commercial forestland could be coming to a head — although it isn’t clear if the solution will satisfy either forestland owners or environmentalists.

Jamie Glasgow of Wild Fish Conservancy (center) leads a crew surveying a stream for the presence of fish in 2014. // Photo: Chris Linder

To be clear, there is not much argument about streamside buffers where salmon, trout and other fish are readily found, thanks to state and federal rules stemming from the landmark Forests and Fish Report. Buffers are designed to save trees that serve the needs of fish — including insects for food, shade for cool water and eventually down trees that form pools for resting as well as hiding places and spawning areas.

Environmentalists contend that it is important to protect unoccupied fish habitat as well as areas occupied by fish at any point in time. If salmon populations are to rebound, salmon fry could need extra space to grow and develop, says Jamie Glasgow, a biologist with Wild Fish Conservancy. That means larger buffers should go where fish habitat can be found.

Of course, timberland owners don’t want to leave large buffers on small stream segments where fish would never go. For them, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial timber could be left standing under new rules, depending on how the state’s Forest Practices Board comes down on this issue of fish habitat. The board is scheduled to take up the issue again with some kind of action planned on Aug. 9.

Fish habitat is defined in the Forest and Fish Report as areas of a stream “used by fish at any life stage at any time of the year, including potential habitat likely to be used by fish which could be recovered by restoration or management and includes off-channel habitat.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The Forest and Fish Report was incorporated into state law by the Washington Legislature, and federal agencies adopted those concepts as a statewide “habitat conservation plan” to protect species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including chinook salmon.

One of the big arguments about fish habitat revolves around how to determine just how far upstream fish would likely go and where they would be deterred under various natural conditions they encounter, such as streamflow or natural barriers such as waterfalls.

The Forest and Fish Report anticipated that a map would be developed with all stream segments designated as either fish habitat or not fish habitat. After several years, such a map was developed in 2005, based on the size and steepness of the streams, using the best information available.

It soon became apparent, however, that fish were being found in areas marked as non-habitat on the maps. Other areas designated as habitat were sometimes unable to support fish. Some fish-bearing streams were not even on the maps, and some streams were in the wrong place. I wrote about the efforts by Wild Fish Conservancy to correct some maps three years ago (Kitsap Sun, Sept. 27, 2014). Previous maps had proved to be a problem as well, even before the Forest and Fish Report (Kitsap Sun, May 28, 1996).

The maps are still used as guidance, but buffer determinations must be made for each logging or development project based on actual site conditions. If a stream is 2 feet wide and the steepness is less than a 20 percent — or 16 percent in some areas — it is assumed that fish can get there.

But — and here’s the rub — an allowable fall-back method is to identify the presence of fish, either through snorkel surveys or by “elecrtrofishing,” which involves putting a nonlethal current in the water to stun the fish. Where fish are located, the area is designated as fish habitat, along with waters that extend upstream to a natural “break,” such as a waterfall or a stream confluence that would prevent fish from going any farther.

Much history surrounds this issue, and all sides should be given credit for working through many thorny habitat problems through the years. Nobody wants to go back to a time when the spotted owl was a symbol for conflict about whether forests were mainly for jobs or fish and wildlife.

As for fish habitat, experts have renewed their attempt to come up with reliable and objective methods to identify the break points between habitat (known as “Type F waters,” which stands for fish) and non-habitat (“Type N waters”) without the costs and impacts of surveying every stream for fish.

Environmental groups became impatient with the effort — or lack of effort at times — over the past 12 years — or more if you go back to the Forest and Fish Report. The matter has gone into formal dispute resolution, as provided by the Forest and Fish Law, and it now is up to the Forest Practices Board to provide a resolution.

“For the past 12 years, we have been using the interim water-typing rule that does not protect fish habitat …,” Glasgow said. “The interim rule allows surveyors to go to a stream anytime (during a specified period) and electrofish a stream. If they do not find fish during the one-day survey, they can identify it as Type N.”

The result is that many miles of fish habitat are getting little or no buffer protection, he argues. Where mistakes are made and small buffers or no buffers are allowed, it will take decades before the trees grow back to become good habitat again.

In mediation talks, the various parties — landowners, environmental groups, tribes and governments — have come to consensus on the overall framework to identify break points where the fish habitat ends, but the details are still unresolved.

Karen Terwilliger, senior director of forest and environmental policy for the Washington Forest Protection Association, said it is important to remember that these discussions are not about streams where adult salmon will go to lay their eggs.

“It’s the tail end of where the fish might be,” said Terwilliger, whose organization represents large timberland owners. The areas in dispute are generally small streams mostly occupied today by resident fish, including various species of trout and tiny sculpins.

The break point between fish and non-fish areas should be a location where the last fish is equally likely to stop above and below that point, she said. The scientific standard is that the break point should be accurate 95 percent of the time, as required by adaptive management provisions of the Forest and Fish Law.

“We think fish presence will always be an important part of the system,” she said. “Different streams are different. A ‘one size fits all’ does not make sense.”

Environmental groups prefer to avoid methods that rely upon people finding fish, which may or may not be present at the time of a survey. It should be possible to define habitat conditions suitable for fish whether or not they are there at a given time.

Scientific information has evolved to where predictions can be made about where fish will go, Terwilliger said, but there are still questions about what conditions create a barrier to fish. A level of scientific certainty is required before changes can go forward.

“If science says a change needs to be made, then you more forward to make the change,” she said. “To date, we have not seen data that a lot of changes need to be made.”

If a rule change is proposed, it will need to undergo environmental review, a cost-benefit analysis, a small-business economic impact statement and public hearings.

Peter Goldman, director and managing attorney at Washington Forest Law Center, said the adaptive management process should be more than a system of delays. Only recently have things been moving in the right direction, he added.

“The timber industry is powerful,” said Goldman, who represents environmental groups. “They don’t want anything to change.

“We have been trying to negotiate in good faith collaboratively, because that is the Washington way,” he said. “If the Forest Practices Board doesn’t act … it is conceivable that we will have to sue the board and ask the federal government to reconsider the HCP.”

Stephen Bernath, deputy supervisor for forest practices at the Washington Department of Natural Resources and chairman of Forest Practices Board, said the board is moving forward with the help of scientists. New ideas and new technology are being brought into the discussion with the goal of seeing whether a variety of physical parameters alone can be used to identify fish habitat with high probability.

At the Aug. 9 meeting, the board is scheduled to get an update on the progress and to act on staff recommendations about the breaks between fish and non-fish waters. After that, a formal process will begin to incorporate changes into policies, rules and guidance.

Environmental groups will boycott Navy meetings

A dozen environmental groups say they will boycott the nine “scoping meetings” the Navy is holding to kick off a new round of studies regarding testing and training activities in the Northwest.

In a letter dated March 13 (PDF 16 kb), the groups said the format of the meetings is not designed to encourage public discussion or even allow public comment. In addition, the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ignored ongoing calls for the Navy to better protect marine wildlife and the environment along the Washington Coast and other biologically important areas, they say.

Navy's Northwest testing and training ranges. Click to enlarge.
Map by U.S. Navy

The Navy will seek a new permit from NOAA for the incidental harassment of marine mammals during testing and training activities. Most of the activities are identical to what is taking place now, but some new activities are added — including the testing of sonar from ships docked at piers.

Between now and 2015, Navy officials will describe and study the effects of various activities on marine life and update existing mitigation with new research findings. See my initial story in the Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27, and a related post in Water Ways, March 6. Also, you may review the official notice in the Federal Register.

Back to the letter, which states in part:

“As you know, the scoping process is the best time to identify issues and provide recommendations to agencies on what should be analyzed in the EIS. However, a process developed for activities with controversial impacts, like those at issue here, that does not provide opportunity for the public to testify or speak to a broader audience, or to hear answers to questions raised by others, and that fails to engage major population centers is not designed to help citizens and organizations effectively participate in agencies’ environmental reviews.”

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Surplus salmon and the future of hatcheries

There’s money to be made in salmon carcasses at the state’s fish hatcheries. At least that’s the viewpoint of folks at the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, as I explained in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

There are two aspects to this. One idea is to speed up the handling of salmon as they arrive back at the hatchery so that they are the freshest they can be. The other aspect includes a possible restructuring of the state’s contract that involves picking up all the surplus fish — no matter what their condition.

The state has extended its contract to the company American Canadian, which has handled the surplus salmon for years. But the Legislature is requiring an examination of how these fish are managed and sold before the next contract is issued. Also, a report to the Legislature is due by Nov. 1. Please read my story for details.
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Navy demolition exercises raise questions

Two leading environmental groups appear to have a little egg on their faces today, but it should not take away the important watchdog work they usually do.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Wild Fish Conservancy filed a lawsuit against the Navy over exercises that explode demolitions and kill fish in the process. It turns out that the groups did not know that the Navy had agreed to protective measures and that those measures were endorsed in a biological opinion June 30 by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The fisheries service has been negotiating with the Navy over the issue for several years, trying to find a compromise that would meet the Navy’s operational needs with the least harm to sea life.

“What is it that the Navy is going to do that has eliminated National Marine Fisheries’ concern, which they held for years now?” asked Adam Draper, staff attorney for PEER in today’s story by Kitsap Sun reporter Ed Friedrich.

“We’re hopeful the measures are going to be fairly stringent to make sure more stresses aren’t placed on these stressed endangered species,” he said. “If so, it’ll be great and we’ll be quite happy. If not, we will amend the suit.”

I suspect the groups will be amending the lawsuit. The agreement allows for 61 training detonations a year — 52 off Whidbey Island, five at Port Townsend and four at Bangor. The detonations will be smaller when migrating salmon are present, and Navy officials will scan the water from a boat to make sure no marine mammals or seabirds are in the area.

Still, up to 5,094 juvenile chinook and 50 adult chinook salmon could be killed or injured by the operations, along with 1,022 juvenile and 101 adult Hood Canal summer chum and 182 juvenile and 20 adult steelhead. All are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

As mitigation, the Navy has agreed to restore a former salt marsh at Crescent Harbor and an intertidal beach in nearby Oak Harbor to boost salmon production.

To read the biological opinion, go to the National Marine Fisheries Service Web site.