A bill to gradually terminate the Atlantic salmon-farming industry in Washington was opposed by Cooke Aquaculture, saying it's a hit to rural economies. The industry supports 180 jobs.

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In rubber boots and work clothes, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific employees from Atlantic salmon fish farms around Puget Sound packed a hearing in Olympia Tuesday on a bill that would shut down their industry.

“We do an excellent job raising fish in Puget Sound; we give it our all. We spend more time with these fish than we do our families; we love them and care for them,” Tom Glaspie, site manager of the Hope Island farm near Anacortes, said at an overflow public hearing convened by the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.

“I’ve got 18 employees underneath me; they have families, kids, mortgages,” Glaspie said.

Cooke so far has invested $70 million in its Washington operations, which it purchased last summer from Icicle Seafoods. And it wants to invest more in its farms, Joel Richardson, vice president for public relations, told the committee. Cooke employs about 180 people in Washington, at four farm locations as well as at a Seattle processing plant and on harvest boats.

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The company’s investment and jobs would be lost if the bill were approved, Richardson said, because the company would not only be unable to renew its leases as they expired, but it also would lose access to state permits it needs for routine operations.

“All this … is not justified,” Richardson said. “We believe farmed salmon is consistent with Washington’s environmental ethic and agricultural tradition.”

Under SB 6086, the state would no longer authorize new leases, or allow any agency to issue permits for any activity involving invasive species of marine finfish aquaculture. The industry would be gradually phased out as permits expire, terminating in 2025. The legislation also would extend unemployment benefits for workers seeking retraining as the result of losing their jobs.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, prime sponsor of the bill, said that while the escape of more than 160,000 fish from Cooke’s Cypress Island farm last summer focused his attention on net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound, it is the impact of daily operations from feces in fish waste and chemicals and drugs in fish food getting into Puget Sound, and concern about disease among the farmed fish getting into the environment, that concern him the most.

With the state spending hundreds of millions of dollars to revive struggling wild Pacific salmon runs, “raising invasive Atlantic salmon that we classify by state law as a pollutant makes no sense,” Ranker said.

Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the farmed-Atlantic salmon business isn’t worth the risk to Puget Sound.

“The risks of these invasive species with vaccines, antibiotics and color dye have been with us for too long,” she said. “If we want to make any return on the investments in projects to save native fish, we need to remove competitive, invasive species from wild fish habitat.”

The Cooke employees were at the hearing on company time, “part of their role as professional farmers defending their livelihoods,” Richardson wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.

But the farmers’ defense brought a passionate push back from wild-salmon advocates who said far more jobs and a far older economy in Washington rest on the precarious state of wild salmon.

“We can sit here and argue the science,” said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, a member of the committee, and the Tulalip Tribes. “But where I am coming from is before European contact, our rivers and streams were quite abundant. … When I sit back and think about my ancestors, what I see is your economic value is being valued higher than the economic value of tribal fisheries.

“I find that very egregious.”

Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, said he is descended from generations of fisherman as well as a signer of the Treaty of Point Elliott with the U.S. government, reserving the tribes’ rights to fish forever.

“Unlike Cooke. They have a privilege,” Julius said. “And in the last year, look what they’ve done.”

He faulted the company for its initial statements after the escape, blaming it on unusual tides caused by the solar eclipse; for underestimating the size of the escape; and not getting the fish mopped up. In the end, the Lummi Nation with an emergency fishery got the most Atlantic salmon out of the water.

Atlantic salmon were still being caught by tribal fishermen in the Skagit River, more than 50 miles upriver, even into December.

All of Cooke’s escaped Atlantic salmon sampled by the state have had empty stomachs, and the fish also were disease-free, and not carrying sea lice, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Atlantics have not turned up in other rivers recently, only the Skagit, according to the department.

Puget Sound gill-netters and other commercial fishermen as well as Washington conservation and environmental groups also testified in favor of shutting down net-pen Atlantic salmon farming in Washington.

In addition to the bill heard Tuesday, Republicans have proposed an emergency bill that would shut the industry down immediately, upon signature of the governor.

The state Department of Fish & Wildlife has repeatedly stated that risks from Atlantic salmon farming to native Pacific salmon are low.

State fish managers tried repeatedly into the 1980s to establish Atlantic salmon runs, deliberately releasing the fish into state waters for sport fishermen. But the fish did not survive.

State agencies are still investigating the cause of the Cypress Island net-pen collapse and environmental effects of the escape. More than 105,000 fish from the escape are still unaccounted for.

Information in this article, originally published Jan. 9, 2018, was corrected Jan. 10, 2018. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated how many people Cooke Aquaculture employs.