OLYMPIA – A Senate committee is considering a bill that could bring an end to some of Washington state’s largest salmon farms.
Senate Bill 6086, heard in committee on Tuesday, Jan. 9, is sponsored by 11 Democratic senators and calls for a ban on the use of Atlantic salmon and other non-native fish in marine aquaculture.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, as part of his proposed Salish Sea Protection package, which also includes measures to protect orca whales and fund oil spill prevention.
SB 6086 comes on the heels of an August incident at Cypress Island in which at least 30,000 Atlantic salmon escaped into the Puget Sound from a net pen facility operated by Canadian company Cooke Aquaculture, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Cooke acquired the Cypress Island facility in 2016, along with three others in Puget Sound. Cooke also operates a fish pen off the south shore of Bainbridge Island.
“The incident at our Cypress Island farm over the summer was certainly regrettable, and we are doing all we can as a company to take responsibility and address it,” Cooke Aquaculture Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson wrote in a press release. “We acknowledge that the fish escapement prompted some understandable fears and concerns about the impact of Atlantic salmon on the health of native stocks, but we are urging lawmakers to recognize that these fears are not borne out by the history or the best available science.”
Carlo Davis, communications director for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, said the science on nonnative fish is not yet definitive, but added that the lack of certainty is a cause for concern. Davis said the department has not yet taken a position on any pending legislation, and is still assessing the impacts of net pen escapements. Representatives from the state departments of ecology and fish and wildlife said their agencies were also neutral on the bill.
Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, is a co-sponsor of the bill and serves as chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks. The senator said the bill should easily receive approval from Democratic members of the committee, but he expressed uncertainty regarding Republican opinions.
Van de Wege said he has always been concerned with net pens, and feels the potential environmental benefits make up for the loss of salmon farming jobs. The senator also suggested that businesses could resort to upland farming to avoid the dangers of net pen escapements, since the ban would apply only to marine facilities.
In Cooke’s press release, the company claimed that 80 full-time jobs were at stake, as well as more than 100 related jobs and $70 million in Washington’s economy. Richardson expressed support for legislative solutions to incidents like the one at Cypress Island, but advocated for less restrictive measures such as regular inspections and more rigorous research.
Ranker said that it doesn’t make sense to keep nonnative species in state waters while simultaneously trying to create a cleaner environment. The Senator indicated the spread of disease as among his top concerns, especially with so many fish kept in close proximity.
“It’s like a preschool,” Ranker said. “Every single fish begins to get sick.”
But Cooke and other bill opponents said that science does not support the idea that non-native salmon could pose a threat to local populations, and that the long history of Atlantic salmon farming has demonstrated as much.
Cooke Aquaculture General Manager Innis Weir said the characteristics that make Atlantic salmon well-suited for farming make them ill-suited for survival in the Northwest, and that they have never proven able to thrive in such a climate.
Randy Hodgin, site manager for Cooke’s Port Angeles facility, said he has spent more than 30 years working in salmon farms, and said his career has allowed him to raise a family in Port Angeles. Hodgin said the facility has a history of giving back to the community, which includes a $15,000 scholarship to students at Port Angeles High School.
Another take on the issue was introduced by Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, who serves as the committee’s vice chair. McCoy asked Cooke representatives about their business’ potential interference with tribal fishermen.
“You’re placing your economic value ahead of tribal value, and I find that very egregious,” McCoy said. “That’s my problem with this net pen operation stuff.” McCoy is a member of the Tulalip Tribes.
Troy Olsen of the Lummi Nation said he has a spiritual connection to the San Juan Islands, and asked why Lummi waters should be violated by a nonnative species of fish.
“We have been here since time immemorial, and our way of life is threatened every day,” Olsen said. “I ask myself all the time, ‘What are we going to leave for our children?’”
Of the 20,000 fish that were recovered from the Cypress Island incident, about 4,000 were caught by Lummi fishing boats, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Lummi Nation Chairman Jeremiah Julius said his people have a right to the Sound by treaty, while Cooke Aquaculture only has a privilege.
“I’m a fisherman for over 100 generations,” Julius said. “These are our waters; the bones of our ancestors are buried in these waters.”
Alex Visser is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.