Does Atlantic Salmon Fish Farming In Puget Sound Have A Future?

Dec 6, 2017

 This is the first in a two-part series on Atlantic salmon fish farming in the Northwest. Read part 2 here.

The Hope Island Fish Farm floats in the middle of Puget Sound, about a 15-minute boat ride from Whidbey Island’s Deception Pass. Narrow metal walkways surround giant nets anchored to the bottom of the sound. Those nets hold thousands of Atlantic salmon--though it’s difficult to see them until they jump.

Tom Glaspie is the site manager. As he talks, rotating metal tubes spray fish food out over the water.

Glaspie said he dives in with the fish about once a month to check that the nets are still properly anchored.

“It’s very dark down there,” Glaspie said. "Swim right through them, and you won’t see a single fish.”

Atlantic salmon have been farmed in the Sound for more than 30 years. That’s in part because Atlantic salmon are domesticated: They grow faster than Pacific salmon and don’t get into fights in the pens. It’s like the difference between raising cattle and raising bison.

There are environmental reasons as well. When Atlantic salmon escape, they can’t breed with native salmon. But, if Pacific salmon were to be domesticated and to escape, they could breed with wild fish and dilute their genetic stock.

But a lot of people are pretty concerned about other potential effects of fish farms, beyond the big escapes.

Washington State Senator Kevin Ranker opposes farming Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound.

“Even more of a concern is the day in, day out impact of these things” Ranker said.

He and other fish farm opponents are making the most of the current outrage about escaped Atlantic salmon to try to draw attention to the stuff they’ve been complaining about for years:

“These net pens are allowed to pass feces through the net pens,” said Ranker. “They’re allowed to pass food pellets, which could have antibiotics in them, through the net pen. They have disease on some of these fish. And, because the net pen is floating in our ecosystem, there will be impacts to the ecosystem.”

Ranker said Washington needs to revamp its oversight of fish farms.

Here’s how it currently works:

Cooke Aquaculture and other companies with fish farms lease the water where the fish farms are located from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, or DNR.

Cori Simmons is a DNR spokesperson.

“It’s like a landlord/tenant relationship,” Simmons said. “Should you violate the law in your apartment and the police become involved, the landlord has the right to evict you.”

The laws companies have to follow have to do with things like water quality and diseases. Agencies give companies permits, and then DNR inspects to make sure the companies are following the rules.

Up until now, there weren’t many inspections.

Back at the Hope Island fish farm, Glaspie  says this is Cooke Aquaculture’s newest facility in the Sound; it was built about six years ago. Glaspie’s been the site manager that whole time.

“I’ve never had a full inspection that I can remember of,” Glaspie said.

DNR has stepped up enforcement since the fish escape and plans to visit all eight of the fish farms in Puget Sound by late January 2018.

But those inspections don’t go nearly far enough for Sen. Ranker, who wants to outlaw farming Atlantic salmon in Washington altogether. His goal is to pass legislation that wouldn’t renew any fish farm leases.

The last existing lease ends in 2025.

He said, in the meantime, his bill would require updating those regulations.

“It requires the Department of Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Natural Resources, to update their guidance documents based on best available science that we have right now,” Ranker said.

If Ranker gets what he wants, his bill would become law by June. New regulations would be in place next fall. And, by 2025, there would be no Atlantic salmon farms left in Puget Sound.

Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson Nell Halse said, if people in the Pacific Northwest can’t buy locally farmed Atlantic salmon, they’ll probably just import more farmed salmon from places like Chile and Thailand, with far less stringent environmental regulations.

“Would you rather have fish that are raised locally, by your own people, under your regulations and oversight?” Cooke said.

Many of those who advocate for taking fish farms out of the Sound said it would be a good idea to put them on land. That way, the people of Washington could eat Atlantic salmon raised locally -- in tanks.

 This is the first in a two-part series on Atlantic salmon fish farming in the Northwest. Read part 2 here.

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