Puget Sound’s fish farming industry poses unacceptable levels of risk to our environment, heritage, and culture — all while a viable, sustainable alternative exists in the form of land-based aquaculture.
Washington state’s elected officials face a crossroads for the environmental and cultural future of Puget Sound.
Down one road a novel opportunity presents itself to do what’s right in the name of common sense, good science and the deeply held convictions of those who call the Pacific Northwest home.
The alternative is not as rosy.
Lawmakers are considering phasing out Atlantic salmon net pens from Puget Sound. Many will ask, why now? What has happened that would prompt us to remove net pens this year, after they have been around for more than three decades?
Then again, perhaps the reasons are obvious.
The public began to take notice of the net-pen industry in 2016 when Cooke Aquaculture, a multinational, foreign corporation, purchased every Atlantic salmon net pen in Washington state.
Attention grew further after Cooke announced its intention to expand operations in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A few months later came the catastrophic Cypress Island net-pen collapse, attracting international press and deepening public concern.
The Cypress Island net pen escape has now become infamous. Over the course of one fateful weekend in August, a net pen structure collapsed and released between 243,000 and 263,000nonnative Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound, according to state investigators.
We don’t yet know the ecological impact of this event, or how many escaped salmon remain.
We do know, however, that nonnative, invasive Atlantic salmon still swim freely in our waters, despite industry and state-agency claims that they would perish. We know that Atlantic salmon have been caught 53 miles upstream on the Skagit River, threatening Puget Sound’s most important salmon- and steelhead-bearing river.
Still, the Cypress Island debacle offers a mere glimpse into the potential for harm this industry represents.
Of greater concern than large escapes, which Puget Sound has seen before, is the documented evidence of small, constant, and unreported escapes. During years in which the industry has reported zero escapes from their pens, hundreds of Atlantic salmon have turned up in commercial and recreational fisheries across the state.
Experts consider this chronic “leakage” to be a significantly greater opportunity for Atlantics to establish themselves than larger, more publicized events. In British Columbia, where there are similar reports of undocumented escapes, researchers have repeatedly documented the successful reproduction of Atlantic salmon.
In one Vancouver Island study, researchers estimated that more than half of 41 watersheds surveyed contained Atlantic salmon, including escaped adults as well as juveniles from successful spawning.
Other fears are confirmed by our neighbors in British Columbia.
Research from scientists in B.C. has clearly demonstrated that wild salmon exposed to net pens are more likely to have debilitating diseases or lethal sea-lice infestations than wild salmon farther away from pens.
Pollution is another serious concern.
Calculations by Wild Fish Conservancy staff ecologists, done in concert with the University of Michigan’s Department of Civil Engineering, show that on a daily basis, Puget Sound net pens discharge untreated phosphorus waste at a rate comparable to the amount of treated waste from the cities of Bellingham, Port Angeles and Everett combined.
The science is in, and the science is clear. Atlantic salmon net pens are not in the public’s best interest.
Washingtonians cherish the Pacific Northwest’s wild salmon. It’s almost as if it’s in our DNA. As an expression of their values, some Washington families spend weekends volunteering on habitat restoration projects, river cleanup crews and tree plantings.
More importantly, Washington lawmakers support legislation dedicating millions of dollars to help clean up Puget Sound and restore wild salmon. We rightfully hold up Pacific salmon as our regional icon, and have invested heavily in its protection and recovery.
The Atlantic salmon net-pen industry poses unacceptable levels of risk to our environment, heritage and culture — all while a viable, sustainable alternative exists in the form of closed-containment, land-based aquaculture.
I urge our elected officials to consider these points, and I encourage you to do the same, for the benefit of our sound, our salmon and our children’s future.