Op-Ed

Time to ban the Atlantic salmon net pen industry from Puget Sound

Workers emerge from the hold of the Marathon after having separated out the 16 farm-raised Atlantic salmon they caught fishing off Point Williams, Wash., in August. The Wild Fish Conservancy is concerned about environmental harm and wants Washington state to ban Atlantic salmon farming in Puget Sound.
Workers emerge from the hold of the Marathon after having separated out the 16 farm-raised Atlantic salmon they caught fishing off Point Williams, Wash., in August. The Wild Fish Conservancy is concerned about environmental harm and wants Washington state to ban Atlantic salmon farming in Puget Sound. AP file

Puget Sound is more than what you see on a map, more than a place where people live, work, and play. Like Mount Rainier, it is state icon that embodies the heart and soul of Washington. The health of Puget Sound, connected to the health of the rivers that flow into it and the land over which those rivers run, is vitally important to Washington.

Puget Sound is our sound, and the Pacific salmon that swim in its waters are our salmon. Atlantic salmon net pens like the one that just spilled thousands of non-native, artificially produced salmon into Puget Sound are a threat to the health of the sound, and a financial burden to Washington’s public. An objective assessment comparing the environmental costs of the Atlantic salmon net pen industry to the few benefits it brings Washingtonians yields one inevitable conclusion: this industry has no business being in Puget Sound.

A foreign conglomerate, Cooke Aquaculture, owns and operates eight Atlantic salmon net pens in Puget Sound. Each net pen is a floating feedlot used to grow artificially produced Atlantic salmon; a single net pen can contain over 300,000 ten-pound fish every year.

If you’ve ever raised a goldfish in an aquarium, take a moment to ponder the amount of waste that three million pounds of Atlantic salmon confined in just one pen can generate and discharge into our public waters. Pens such as these have a poor safety record both globally and in the sound, a record that includes thousands of escaped Atlantic salmon, major viral outbreaks, and decades of pollution.

Despite this, Washington’s environmental agencies lack an adequate regulatory process for the Atlantic salmon net pen industry. Remarkably, our agencies largely rely on recommendations that are far weaker than many international net pen standards, especially those that protect water quality and wild fish. Our state agencies, which should be protecting the public’s interests and natural resources, instead allow the net pen industry to discharge their untreated waste directly into Puget Sound.

We cannot risk putting the health of our Sound into the hands of an industry with a long history of harmful environmental, social, and economic impacts – impacts that led California, Oregon and Alaska to wisely ban this industry from their waters.

In part due to Washington’s lax environmental regulations, Cooke Aquaculture has plans to expand their operations with the ultimate goal of transforming Puget Sound into an epicenter of Atlantic salmon production.

If they are successful, this conglomerate will make millions in profits while Washingtonians and our Sound will get stuck with the bill for decades of environmental harm. As is, we bear the cost for the industry’s disposal of fish feces, medications, and diseases.

The last thing we can allow is a destructive, loosely regulated industry to further threaten our sound and our salmon.

Jamie Glasgow, director of science and research for the Wild Fish Conservancy

When a net pen fails and thousands of Atlantic salmon escape, as happened off of Cypress Island earlier last month, the public also bears the cost for Cooke’s waste recovery efforts; their approved spill recovery plan substantially relies on tribal, commercial, and recreational fishermen to catch their escaped fish. When there is a fish disease outbreak within a pen as there was off of Bainbridge Island in 2012, the public may even be on the hook for reimbursing the company for lost revenue.

Our state agencies allow a foreign company which employs fewer than 85 individuals statewide to threaten the health of Puget Sound – the very fabric of our culture and heritage.

The future of Puget Sound is precarious, and grows ever more uncertain due to the political climate in our nation’s capital. Federal funding for restoration is on the chopping block and environmental protections for clean water and endangered salmon are at risk of being eliminated. Given the potential loss of these critical restoration funds and protections, the last thing we can allow is a destructive, loosely regulated industry to further threaten our sound and our salmon.

It’s time we join our neighboring states and ban this dirty industry from our public waters. It’s time we stand up for wild salmon by sending a loud and clear message to Gov. Inslee that a moratorium isn’t enough. Gov. Inslee needs to protect our sound, our salmon, and our future by joining our neighboring states and banning the Atlantic salmon net pen industry from Puget Sound.

Jamie Glasgow is director of science and research for the Wild Fish Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization headquartered in Duval, seeks to improve conditions for all of the Northwest’s wild fish by conducting research on wild-fish populations and habitats; advocating for better land-use, harvest and hatchery management; and developing model restoration projects.

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