Begun with a quest to grow salmon sized to the slot in a TV dinner, industrial-scale salmon farming in the U.S. got its start in Washington — which now is pushing to ban it.

Share story

The salmon-farming industry in the United States got its start right here in the Puget Sound region in the 1970s with experiments to raise salmon perfectly pan-sized or just right to fit the slot of a TV dinner.

Union Carbide, then Campbell’s Soup, and a string of other entrepreneurs eventually decided docile, domesticated Atlantic salmon fattened up fastest and best in the open-water net pens they were test-piloting in Puget Sound.

The industry really took off when federal fisheries scientists, with more than 1 million jilted Atlantic salmon eggs intended for restocking depleted East Coast streams, instead gave them to private industry.

By the time Cooke Aquaculture Pacific came to Washington in 2016, the state was home to one of the largest marine finfish aquaculture operations in the country, with nine net pens producing as much as 17 million pounds of Atlantic salmon grown every year in Puget Sound.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

But Washington’s long-running experiment with Atlantic salmon farming may soon sputter to a stop, as state lawmakers weigh phasing out the industry by 2025.

Cooke says the company is being unfairly vilified for its escape of as many as 263,000 Atlantics from its Cypress Island farm last August.

While always controversial, the question of whether to retain Atlantic salmon farming in Washington has taken on a new urgency as Puget Sound and its federally listed species — including native salmon — struggle for survival. Many fear the state’s identity as a place of wild salmon is slipping away.

The science is mixed — and thin — on the actual harm that farmed and escaped Atlantic salmon pose day to day for native Pacific salmon and Puget Sound.

Crystal clear, however, has been a wide response since the escape that while farming is as Washington as apples or wheat, Atlantic salmon farming just doesn’t belong here.

John Burch, 72, of Seattle, remembers being served Atlantic salmon when he was stationed back East in the Army. “I said, that is not salmon. Not if you are from the Pacific Northwest.” He didn’t realize until Cooke’s widely publicized escape that the fish were farmed here.

“There is no business to raise that salmon in our area,” Burch said. “I feel a connection to this area. Our salmon is something that is very unique and if it ever gets destroyed it will never come back. What swims up and down the Atlantic coast is just not the same. It is just a fish to me.”

Aggressive offensive

Cooke, a player on a global stage that provided Atlantic salmon from its farms in Maine for President Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day dinner, has launched an aggressive offensive in Olympia to keep and grow the industry here.

The company has claimed a shutdown would illegally confiscate its $76 million investment in Washington, and threatened to sue to recoup its losses under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“This right now is the most difficult jurisdiction in the world where we operate,” said Joel Richardson, vice president at Cooke for public relations.

Related stories

The company’s record in its home country is mixed. Cooke on Feb. 14 circulated to Washington lawmakers a letter from Rick Doucet, the minister of aquaculture and fisheries in the government of New Brunswick — where the company was founded in 1985 — praising Cooke’s operations.

However, Cooke also has faced severe penalties in its home country, including a $500,000 fine in 2013, one of the largest-ever fines in Canada for federal fisheries violations following a two-year investigation by Environment Canada. Kelly Cove Salmon, a Cooke division, pleaded guilty to knowing, illegal use of pesticide to kill sea lice at its Atlantic salmon farms, resulting in lobster die-offs.

Cooke is one of the largest fish farmers in the world and the second-largest in North America, with $2.5 billion in annual revenue and about 6,000 employees in six countries. Cooke is the only net pen Atlantic salmon farmer in the U.S.

Cooke’s operations in Washington — where aquaculture is encouraged by state statute — are still small, with just over 80 employees at the farms themselves, and an $8.5 million payroll in the state. Cooke counts an additional 100 jobs in its harvest and processing activities and more than 400 indirect jobs associated with its Washington farms.

The state’s rent and royalties from Cooke are small, totaling just $238,139 in 2016. That didn’t even cover the $460,000 the Department of Natural Resources paid to contract inspectors following Cooke’s Cypress Island collapse to assess the soundness and safety of the rest of Cooke’s pens. Those inspections resulted in termination of two leases covering five of Cooke’s nine pens so far.

If lawmakers do phase out the industry, “Everything is on the table,” Richardson said, from pulling up out of the state, to simply farming another type of fish.

Limited oversight

The escape showed how limited state agencies are in their oversight of the farms, and in their regulatory tools.

Unlike the state’s robust and rehearsed response to oil spills, the August fish escape caught Washington agencies unprepared. Most of the Atlantics had gotten away by the time the state put up an emergency response a week later.

The state also has no research program to know the long-term effects of the fish invading state waters.

So weak are the state’s regulatory tools that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) can by law only test fish at the farms for certain diseases, and even the governor could not stop Cooke last fall from stocking its hatchery with 1.8 million more Atlantic salmon eggs, and moving 1 million more Atlantics into grow-out pens in Puget Sound, even as Cooke’s operations were under state investigation.

“Moving these fish now would create more negative feelings about pen-raised Atlantic salmon and your operations at a time when Cooke should be focused on its future in Washington State,” David Postman, Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief of staff cautioned Cooke in an email obtained by The Times under a public-records request.

Cooke ignored that advice and insisted through its lawyers on business as usual, and the governor and agencies had to retreat.

Agency staff did not make their own site visit to the collapsed pen until four days after the pen fell apart. State regulators took no water-quality samples of their own, relying instead on Cooke’s data. And when Cooke blamed the escape on unusually high tides due to the August solar eclipse, agency staff passed the misinformation on to the media in official talking points.

It turned out the company misled agencies and the public both about the cause of the escape and how bad it was, regulators concluded after a four-month investigation, which found the company solely at fault for negligent operations. “Cooke mislead us,” said Amy Windrope, a WDFW manager, in the news conference convened by all three agencies that regulate Cooke in Washington.

Risk low, but not zero

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says the risk of farming Atlantic salmon to the ecology of Puget Sound is low.

But it’s not zero, and some are offended by Cooke’s dismissal of any risk, such as in the company’s online solicitation for letters to legislators opposing the net-pen phaseout bill.

“ … the biological science is solid as a rock: farmed salmon pose zero threat to wild salmon, either in the marketplace or in our waterways,” the online posting states, with a form to email lawmakers and tell them “the science is clear: farmed salmon pose zero threat to wild salmon.”

That’s a stretch, said Jim Seeb, a fisheries biologist at the University of Washington. “When they are saying farmed salmon pose zero risk, that is totally not true,” Seeb said. “The science that Atlantic salmon cannot invade Washington? That science is not solid as a rock.”

Captures of free-swimming Atlantics in both saltwater and freshwater in Washington, Alaska and British Columbia have been confirmed for years, a 2005 study by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission shows.

In Washington, the WDFW has not documented any self-sustaining runs of Atlantics, but Atlantics have been found in WDFW snorkel surveys in 12 streams in Washington since at least 2003.

Footage taken in 2003 shows Atlantic salmon swimming freely in Scatter Creek, Wash. (Courtesy of John Volpe, PhD / University of Victoria)

John Volpe of the University of Victoria, one of the few scientists that has studied escaped Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest, has documented reproducing runs in British Columbia. He also videotaped Atlantic salmon in Scatter Creek, in Rochester, Thurston County, in 2003, presumably escaped from a nearby Atlantic salmon grow pond.

Jeff Parsons of the Puget Sound Partnership, the cabinet-level state agency charged with protection and revival of Puget Sound, echoed Inslee in saying net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon poses too much risk to a fragile ecosystem where only 76 southern-resident killer whales — which depend on native Pacific salmon for survival — are at critical risk of extinction.

“I want to stick with what we know: There is increased pollution from net pens. They are like marine feedlots,” Parsons said. “You have greater risk of fish pathogens, viruses, and disease and parasites and all of those present a risk to our native species. We cannot ignore the risk that these net pens pose to our efforts to recover our native salmon.”

Practical PR approach

Rodger May, of Seattle, sold the Atlantic salmon farms under fire today to Icicle Seafoods in 2008, the previous owner before Cooke.

May said he knew farming Atlantics would always be an uphill battle in Washington, the home of Pacific salmon. He said he took a practical approach to the public-relations problem.

“One of my biggest jobs was how to keep the enviros happy, how to keep the neighbors happy,” May said in an interview.

Whether a donation by the company to a favorite charity, community cause, or even buying the home of a neighbor who didn’t like the noise, smells or lights from one of his fish farms, May was ready with the checkbook.

“We sat down with hundreds of people, individual groups, charities, ‘Let’s see how we could help you with your cause, tell us what you would like us to do.’ If we set aside 10 cents a pound to make people happy that makes a lot of people happy.”

Cooke since its net-pen escape also has spent millions cleaning up its mess, paying tribes for catching its escaping fish, and promising much more if the state will just let them stay.

May says that’s too little, too late: “Cooke can’t even defend themselves now because of the position they put themselves in.”

Richardson says most places would be pulling out all the stops to get a company like Cooke to establish its farms in their waters. He seems puzzled the issue has struck such a nerve here.

But while large-scale escapes have happened before, in a new era of sensitivity about the Sound and its decline, this one stirred deep feelings.

Born in Seattle and living in Burlington, Skagit County, Bryce Barden, 74, has fished the Skagit since 1964, the days when catching a 30-pound Chinook seemed like a birthright for a Washington resident.

“Now it’s pretty unheard of,” said Barden. “You take a big king salmon like that, the filets are 2 inches thick, and they are so fat, you take it out of your smokehouse and it just melts in your mouth.”

When the state declared open season last August on the escaped Atlantics, Barden caught more than six dozen 10-pounders and gave them all away.

“It was fun; I’m an avid angler,” Barden said. “They fought good. Really well. We have so little opportunity as sportsmen to go catch fish, it’s so regulated. And all of a sudden, they open up this candy store.”

But all the same, his Pacific salmon angler’s heart did not warm to the Atlantics, Barden said.

“They just don’t belong here.”