Public Lands Commissioner bans fish farming in Washington waters

 By executive order, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has banned the 40-year practice of commercial fish farming in state-owned waters.

The ban was announced Friday at a news conference on Bainbridge Island, four days after an announcement that the last two remaining fish farming leases on Puget Sound would not be renewed.

“As we’ve seen too clearly here in Washington, there is no way to safely farm finfish in open sea net pens without jeopardizing our struggling native salmon,” Franz said in a statement. “I’m proud to stand with the rest of the West Coast today by saying our waters are far too important to risk for fish farming profits.”

In the order, Franz cited the “irreplaceable public heritage” of the state’s aquatic lands and the danger of damage to the aquatic ecosystem, among other factors, as rationale for the ban.

On the latter point, Franz cited a report commissioned by the Legislature, which indicates that “degradation of the benthic environment, biofouling, and ecological impacts to the broader habitat” are risks of commercial aquaculture.

Cooke Aquaculture had operated all Washington’s net pen fish farming operations since 2016. The company had been cited for lease and safety violations, according to DNR statements. In 2017 the company’s Cypress Island net pen facility collapsed, which resulted in some 250,000 salmon escaping into the bay, according to a DNR statement.

The Legislature subsequently prohibited nonnative finfish aquaculture, and Cooke switched to raising steelhead trout.

In announcing the decision, Franz was flanked by Chairman Leonard Forsman of the Suquamish Tribe and Emma Helverson, Executive Director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. Both praised the move.

“On behalf of the Suquamish people, I want to thank Commissioner Franz for listening to Tribes and others who place the health of the Salish Sea as their top priority,” Forsman said in a statement.

“The importance of this new policy for wild fish, water quality, and the greater health of Puget Sound cannot be overstated,” Helverson said. “We are so grateful to Commissioner Franz for listening to the public and taking action to protect Puget Sound, not just today, but far into the future for the benefit of so many generations to come.”

Cooke Aquaculture expressed dismay at the decision not to renew its leases and questioned the scientific rationale for the move.

“A recent Federal Biological Opinion and a recent Washington Supreme Court decision both reaffirm the state of the science that fish farming does not have an adverse impact on the environment,” the company said in a statement. “All of these factors are contrary to DNR’s decision to not renew our leases.”

“The science does not support the statements made by Commissioner Franz that the removal of these fish farms will save wild fish and natural habitat,” Cooke added.

Others agree, including Jim Parsons, president and CEO of tribally owned Jamestown Seafood.

“This was not a decision based on science,” Parsons said, according to published reports. “If that were the case, we would be seeing a very different decision.”

Sebastian Belle, president of the National Aquaculture Association, told The Center Square via email: “The US aquaculture farming community recognizes the value and benefits of regulations to protect the public, environment and farming operations. In this instance where science is ignored, which is so very critical to achieving excellence in governance and finding a balance between man and nature, no one benefits. We strongly support an independent review by objective scientists and hope the citizens of Puget Sound will agree.”

The ban comes three weeks after the Biden administration unveiled a five-year strategic plan to increase aquaculture in the United States.

“To ensure resilient ecosystems, coastal communities, seafood access, and more, we must invest in and enable a robust domestic aquaculture industry. Seafood, both wild and farmed, is vital to our people, economy, and planet,” the plan, created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, states.

The plan notes that while aquaculture now provides more than half of the global supply of seafood, the United States imports about 70% of what it consumes.

Finfish operations are not permitted in state waters in Alaska and California, nor in coastal ponds in Rhode Island, according to the NOAA.


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