Group fights to stop expansion of Atlantic salmon net pens

KING 5's Heather Graf reports.

In the aftermath of a massive spill from a fish farm near the San Juans, a group of environmentalists, tribal leaders, and concerned neighbors are pushing for change.

It was August 20 when Cook Aquaculture's net pens off Cypress Island collapsed. As a result, more than 160,000 non-native Atlantic salmon escaped into Puget Sound.

The Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency in the days that followed, worried that the Atlantic salmon from the fish farm could damage the state's native fish population and their livelihood as well.

Cooke Aquaculture apologized for the incident and an investigation into what happened is now underway. The Department of Natural Resources said that investigation should be complete sometime in December.  

Governor Jay Inslee also issued a moratorium on net pen permits after the August spill. DNR says that moratorium will remain in place until the investigation is complete, at a minimum.

But that's not stopping environmentalists from worrying about Cooke Aquaculture's next move.  Cooke currently has eight net pen locations in Puget Sound.

The company is proposing a new Atlantic salmon fish farm, to be located in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

"The new proposal is out in the open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which is a a migratory path for what some would say are most of the outgoing and incoming native Pacific salmon," said Chris Wilke, the Executive Director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. "It's also a very high energy environment.  It's a very stormy area with sometimes violent weather episodes, which would call into question the robustness of these farms, which are generally built in protected areas. It's a concern on multiple levels."

Cooke Aquaculture's proposal would build 14 floating circular net pens about 1.5 miles offshore.  The company's current operation located in Port Angeles Harbor would be moved to the new farm, which would reportedly increase production by 20 percent. 

But Clallam County officials have said the company's application to build that new salmon farm in the Strait of Juan de Fuca has been put on hold for the time being.

County planning manager Steve Gray told the Associated Press that Cooke Aquaculture asked for a September 7 hearing for a project permit to be postponed as it dealt with the aftermath of the mass escape of thousands of fish from its Cypress Island facility.

Wilke says the postponement of that hearing in Clallam County served as motivation for Puget Soundkeeper Alliance to organize a hearing of its own.

"What the public said to us is that they wanted to have the hearing anyway, and we are honoring that request," he said. "We want the county to have a record of people's feelings on this issue."

Environmentalists, local tribal leaders, and lawmakers showed up for the Wednesday evening event. They said their goal is to stop the expansion of Atlantic salmon net pens in Puget Sound.

"An open net has no barrier between the farming operation and the public waterway that wild fish share," said Wilke. "There is disease, parasites, and pollution occurring from these facilities."

Wilke said their intent was to videotape testimony from members of the public at Wednesday's hearing, and make sure county and state leaders have access to the video. He says Cooke Aquaculture was also invited to take part.

In response, a spokesperson for the company released the following statement to KING 5:

"Cooke Aquaculture welcomes respectful dialogue about the benefits of salmon farming in Washington state.  We look forward to participating in the Clallam County hearing on the proposed relocation of the Port Angeles fish farm when it is rescheduled.  Wednesday's event was not a hearing, but a protest event, which did nor include our company," wrote Nell Halse, with Cooke.

According to Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Atlantic salmon net pens are banned in every West Coast state except Washington.

It's a statistic State Representative Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, echoed when he spoke to the crowd at Wednesday's hearing.

"California and Alaska have gotten to the point where no net pens are allowed.  Oregon has tightened it down so there are none currently in the few place they would allow them," said Chapman. "There's no place for these farms in our state."

When lawmakers return to Olympia, Chapman says he plans to introduce legislation to address the issue.

According to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, it's estimated that about 100,000 of the 160,000 escaped Atlantic salmon are still unaccounted for. 

A WDFW spokesperson told KING 5 the last confirmed report of an Atlantic salmon being caught was on October 25, although biologists say that by all indications, more of those non-native fish are dying by the day.

© 2017 KING-TV


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