By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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“I can't imagine any rational company would install a fish-farming site anywhere in Jefferson County,” said Mike Rust, science coordinator for the Office of Aquaculture in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, on Monday afternoon.
He later said the comment was a joke, though some attending the meeting took it seriously.
The meeting was called to examine the potential disease dangers of fish farming.
Jefferson County commissioners are looking into using a conditional-use process to evaluate potential fish-farming operations since the state Department of Ecology has said the county cannot place an outright ban on the practice in its shoreline management program update.
In addition to Rust, the panel included Jill Rolland, director of the U.S. Geological Survey Western Fisheries Research Center; Laura Hoberecht, National Wildlife Refuge aquaculture coordinator, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service; Hugh Mitchell, an expert on fish health and vaccines; and John Kerwin of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
After the meeting, Rust said his statement was facetious, that it had no basis in fact and that he “had thrown it in just to add a little bit of levity to the discussion.
“It was obviously in jest,” Rust said. “Until you go out and find out what the water is like and the oceanography is like, there is no way to tell if it's a good choice or a bad choice.”
The joke wasn't clear to attendees, especially since the comment followed a discussion about where a fish pen could be located.
The commissioners already have ruled out Discovery Bay and Hood Canal for fish-farming operations, with the only acceptable places in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and on the Pacific Coast of the West End of the county.
Jefferson County Commissioner Phil Johnson didn't think Rust's statement was a joke and thought it pertained to the intense permit process that any applicant would need to satisfy should they choose to locate in Jefferson County.
“I think that the reason they might not want to locate here is because they don't want to have to fight for everything they want,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he was most worried about infectious salmon anemia virus — also known as ISA — and how its presence would affect the aquatic wildlife that are in proximity to the fish farm.
“We don't believe there is any ISA in British Columbia,” Mitchell said.
“There was a piece of DNA that showed its presence, but it wasn't there when we tested again, and even that little piece is debatable.”
Several panelists said the virus transmission more often occurs from wild fish to farmed fish, but the concentration of many fish in a small space is still an issue.
“When the fish are in close proximity to each other, the diseases can spread more easily, like when you take a sick kid to day care,” Rolland said.
“Farmed fish are more likely to get viruses from wild fish than the other way around.”
“There is a variety of currents that pass through a net pen, but most of the toxins are reduced to a background level within a football field's length,” Kerwin said.
“They seem to be telling us that everything is OK and they have this under control, but I still have some questions,” Johnson said.
“I find it hard to believe that the concentration of feces is not a problem after all the articles that I've read about this.”
Johnson also is concerned about the presence of sea lice, something panel members said was not an issue in United States waterways.
Associate planner Michelle McConnell said net pens currently are allowed under Jefferson County code and that no applications for such a venture have been received for several decades, but the examination process is still necessary.
“There is risk in all things, but the best way to restrict the use is to take a look at all the foreseeable possibilities and to put an adaptable system in place,” she said.
In developing the shoreline management program, the greatest sticking point has been establishing a mechanism for evaluating fish farms.
“I'm not doing this to be difficult,” Johnson said of his continued skepticism about the fish-farming process.
Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at email@example.com.