Walsh bill seeks ban on Atlantic Salmon pens

“This is an emergency,” said state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, prime co-sponsor of the legislation.

By Lynda V. Mapes

The Seattle Times

Two Republican state lawmakers have introduced legislation to immediately ban Atlantic salmon net pens in Puget Sound.

“This is an emergency,” said state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, prime co-sponsor of the legislation, which would make Atlantic salmon net-pen farming illegal in Washington waters.

The bill is filed for consideration in the coming 60-day legislative session, which begins in January. The bill, if passed by the Legislature, would take effect immediately upon signature by the governor.

The ban seeks to cancel existing leases held by Cooke Aquaculture, the multibillion-dollar Canadian corporation that operates eight Atlantic net-pen farms in Puget Sound. Its leases with the state Department of Natural Resources expire at different times at its farms, with the latest timing out in 2025.

The ban takes a more urgent approach than another bill planned by Democratic state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. His legislation would phase out the farms as the leases expire.

But after last August’s escape from Cooke’s Cypress Island farm — freeing more than 100,000 Atlantics into Washington waters — that is not quick enough, Walsh said.

“We thought a bright line that would clear the issue quickly is the best approach,” Walsh said. “I live on the coast and we have been struggling for years with our native salmon stocks, they are all run down, all the metrics are bad.

“It just galls me that we are running this industry sideline in our public waters, raising invasive species. It is just very infuriating. Weird in every way. Considering all the money our state is spending supporting native stocks, why in God’s green Earth would we be doing something completely alien to those recovery efforts?”

Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said in a prepared statement, “It simply doesn’t make sense to continue allowing Atlantic salmon farms to operate in Washington State.

“Enough is enough.”

Nell Halse, spokeswoman for Cooke Aquaculture, said in an email to The Seattle Times that the company is “committed to operating our facilities in a safe and responsible manner to help supply global demand for healthy protein and bring jobs, tax revenue and other economic benefits to the Pacific Northwest.”

“We welcome the opportunity to meet with the Representatives to address their concerns and hope that any proposed legislation will be based on sound science.”

State agency experts in a recent work session with state lawmakers said escaped Atlantic salmon that have been tested had empty stomachs, are disease free, sexually immature, are not turning up in the spawning grounds, and are gradually wasting away.

However, the Upper Skagit tribe this month caught more Atlantics in a brief test fishery for chum salmon in a small stretch of the Skagit River. Walsh said he is not surprised, and expects the fish to keep turning up. “They don’t just go poof, and disappear,” he said.

He expressed frustration that the Department of Natural Resources has not taken a harder line on the farms, and said the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has in his opinion soft-balled risk posed by the Atlantics to Puget Sound.

“I want to resolve what I consider to be a major risk to public waters,” Walsh said.

“Some people may say it is overstating the risk. But given that our native stocks are already depleted, it is like a person who is already sick, whose immune system is compromised, can die from a cold.”

The Department of Natural Resources has begun a third-party inspection of Cooke’s farms, turning up defects in the first farm it examined. Cooke set to work fixing a hole in the net and corrosion top side on the farm’s structure — and also received permission from the WDFW to stock another million Atlantics in the farm in Rich Passage at the south end of Bainbridge Island.

Washington is the only U.S. West Coast state with net-pen Atlantic salmon farming in its waters. California and Alaska ban it, and Oregon has no net-pen farms.

The Squaxin Island Tribe also stepped forward to back the bill in a prepared statement. “We support banning Atlantic salmon aquaculture from our waters,” said Chairman Arnold Cooper of the Squaxin Island Tribe. “Continuing to allow Atlantic salmon aquaculture means future spills are inevitable. Future spills mean Atlantic salmon will compete with native fish for wild food, and they also mean we risk Atlantic salmon colonizing (Washington waters).”

All Western Washington tribes with treaty-protected salmon fisheries have come out in favor of an Atlantic salmon net-pen ban. The Lummi Nation led the effort to clean up the spill when it occurred, catching 400,000 pounds of Atlantics that were later disposed of.

There have been four major Atlantic salmon escapes from net pen farms since 1996.

Cooke purchased its operation from Icicle Seafoods last year. The company’s business model is to grow by expansion, and Cooke, one of the largest aquaculture companies in the world, based in New Brunswick, Canada, has stated it would like to improve its farms here, and expand them.

The company has apologized for the escape and asked for the chance to keep operating in Washington.