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Rough waters for salmon farms?

"Where other farms have been priced off their land, one of the island's biggest growers barely uses any soil at all.But Northwest Sea Farms, Washington's largest grower of pen-raised Atlantic salmon, still faces challenges spurred by suburbanization. A growing residential population in the Fort Ward area has objected to management of the fish farm in Rich Passage, raising aesthetic, safety and ecological concerns.(The salmon farmers) are in an odd place, not through any fault of their own, said South Beach Drive resident Henry Jameson. Everything is changing, and they are going to come under increased pressure, simply due to the growth of the population.Jameson and other neighbors have objected to the salmon operation's proposal to replace aging fish pens with new facilities that many feared would blight their waterfront views. And although homeowners have since learned that the new pens would look less obtrusive than the old ones and hold the same number of fish, other concerns with the farm still persist. Most significant, many residents say, are the potential ecological effects of escaped Atlantic salmon. More than 350,000 of the fish got away when the aging pens were towed to avoid a red tide in 1997, and another 100,000 were inadvertently released during powerful tidal currents last year.I know the (new fish pens) are stronger, but we are just concerned they could still rip if they were dragged across the rocks, said Fort Ward resident Jayni Detrick. Our main concerns are the environmental effects of the farm.Founded in 1972 by the Campbell's Soup subsidiary Pan Domsea, the Rich Passage fish farms at Orchard Rocks and Clam Bay now produce about 1 million adult Atlantic salmon every year. Over the past 12 years, the farms were sold twice, then foreclosed on by a feed supplier, and finally sold again to the Pan Fish Corporation last year. Over that time, with new shoreline homes going in along South Beach Drive, new neighbors have been increasingly vocal in demanding changes in the farm's operations. In 1997, when the farm reconfigured its fish pens without a permit, neighbors appealed to the city hearing examiner, who required the company to move the pens back. A year later, the farm voluntarily responded to complaints, when it took measures to contain strong smells wafting from drying kelp on nets.It also rescheduled feed deliveries recently, to avoid morning and afternoon school buses, after residents complained that 18-wheelers carrying supplies posed a safety threat on the neighborhood's narrow roads.Now, although a few gripes persist over the farm's junky appearance and the parked cars of employees in a nearby lot, neighbor Deborah Meyers says, Basically, I don't mind (the fish farmers) as neighbors, except, I know there are some issues about the environmental impact. The scienceThose issues first came to the forefront in November 1998, when an alliance of environmental groups sued Washington State, demanding more stringent controls over waste discharges from fish farms and more rules preventing Atlantic salmon escapes.The Pollution Control Hearings Board - which now regulates both exotic Atlantic salmon species and effluent from fish farms as pollution - ruled at that time that waste discharges from fish pens are adequately controlled and that escaped Atlantic salmon do not pose a threat to the environment.Key to the decision was scientific testimony noting that although government agencies released millions of juvenile Atlantic salmon into Canadian and Washington streams in early attempts to establish breeding runs of the species, no self-sustaining populations of the fish have taken hold.That consensus was challenged only a few months after the ruling by a team of Canadian scientists who discovered juvenile Atlantic salmon in Vancouver Island's Tsitika River. Noting scale growth patterns on the young fish and the remoteness of the nearest fish farm, the researchers concluded the salmon were born in the wild.Whether those fish are going to go back to the ocean and then return, I don't know, said one of the authors of the report, Eric Taylor. But to say (long-term colonization of the river) definitely won't happen is just ridiculous.Taylor and his colleagues say that under some conditions, Atlantic salmon could outcompete already-endangered native salmonids for food. The Atlantic species eats the same insect larvae, but grows faster, also making it more profitable to raise in farms.Since the first Atlantic salmon were set free in the Northwest, The environment that the animals are being released into has changed dramatically, Taylor said, particularly the number of wild indigenous salmon in those streams that might have (formerly) impeded the ability of Atlantic salmon to colonize.Spurred by the Canadian findings, the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board revised its initial ruling that March, requiring the state Department of Ecology to review the available data and determine the need for additional conditions for fish farm permits.After conferring with other state regulatory agencies, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) last year summarized the available science on the matter, and produced a set of policy recommendations.The suggestions included provisions for increased monitoring and oversight of Atlantic salmon farms and the use of non-reproductive fish in aquaculture production to eliminate the risk of long-term colonizations by escaped populations.The author of the report, Kevin Amos, said fish farmers needed to take measures to prevent escapes. It's very easy to manage those sort of things through legislation and procedures, he told The Review.A bill later introduced in the Washington House of Representatives and supported by WDFW and Rep. Phil Rockefeller would have required plans to prevent, manage and monitor Atlantic salmon escapes, including a report on the science of farming non-reproductive populations.But the House bill, along with a similar one introduced in the State Senate, stalled in legislative committees earlier this year.Nevertheless, eventual regulations requiring use of sterilized or all-female fish are likely, said Arve Mogster, the manager of Northwest Sea Farms.We think that is obtainable, and of course we are open to anything in that regard, he said. If we can produce the same number of fish by using female stocks, we will do that.Meanwhile, Northwest continues to operate Atlantic salmon farms in Port Angeles, the San Juan Islands, and Rich Passage, where new fish pens recently received a shoreline exemption permit from the city of Bainbridge and will go in soon.We bought the strongest system you can buy, Mogster said, because we don't want (escapes) to happen again.If Atlantic salmon get away, Northwest and simmilar farmers now face possible fines from the Department of Ecology, which two years ago was directed to regulate releases of the species as pollution.With over 10 million pounds of Atlantic salmon produced annually in Washington, the State Department of Agriculture estimates the total economic value to the state at over $40 million.Advocates of the industry also point out that eating farmed fish takes strain off of already-beleaguered native salmon populations.Instead of clearing out the wild fish, we should eat farmed salmon, Mogster said."

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