Mix of net pen bills takes aim at non-native salmon

OLYMPIA — State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege is pushing ahead with Senate Bill 6086 regarding fish net pens following a damning report by three state agencies regarding the escape of Atlantic salmon in a net pen failure last August at a salmon farm in Puget Sound.

The state Department of Natural Resources alleged last week that the Cypress Island net pen failure occurred when its owner, Cooke Aquaculture, allowed the nets to become fouled with mussels and plant life. The nets failed when they could not sustain the weight of the additional plant life and mussels during high tides in Puget Sound.

Van De Wege, D-Sequim, is co-sponsor of SB 6086, which would prohibit DNR from entering new leases or extending old ones involving fin fish aquaculture of Atlantic salmon or other non-native fish.

It also would require state agencies to update existing guidance and resources regarding marine net pen farming and to study the impact of the 2017 Atlantic salmon escape.

Washington state officials Sunday canceled Cooke’s lease at the Cypress Island site where the pens collapsed, releasing tens of thousands non-native fish.

Van De Wege represents the 24th District along with Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, and Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim. The 24th District includes all of Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

“If this company was failing at the most basic, most obvious level of maintenance, then I have to question their commitment and ability to responsibly farm in our waters, including in Port Angeles where they operate another salmon farm,” Van De Wege said in a press release.

“Clearly, we need stronger safeguards to protect the health of our natural resources. The threats posed by Cooke’s Cypress Island farm extend to the company’s other salmon farms across Puget Sound.”

Other bills have been sponsored in the Legislature to address aquaculture concerns.

Last week, HB 2956 was heard in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, where Chapman is the vice chairman.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said that Washington state agencies have introduced millions of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound without any instance of colonization between farmed and native salmon.

His proposal would require all future salmon farming leases awarded by the state to be limited to the production of single-sex fish that cannot reproduce.

Cooke employees testified in favor of the legislation and expressed confidence that they could raise exclusively female Atlantic salmon. The compromise bill, Cooke said in a news release, represents a “preferred alternative” to a ban of their operations.

In another statement, Cooke called the state’s report on its net pen failure “inaccurate and misleading,” adding that it “appears to be intended to fuel the push by aquaculture opponents to put Cooke out of business in Washington state.”

HB 2956, said Van De Wege via email, “does not go far enough in protecting our waters.” The senator said he prefers an “outright ban on all non-native fin fish.”

Chapman and Tharinger have already sponsored HB 2418, which would ban construction of new net pan facilities until July 1, 2020.

After that date, net construction would be permitted only after inspections are completed and the departments of Fish and Wildlife, Ecology and Natural Resources certify that permitting and lease requirements are sufficient to prevent negative impacts to health and safety of Washington water and ecosystems, Pacific salmon health and habitat and tribal treaty fishing rights.

That bill had its hearing in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 18.

Chapman also has signed on to sponsor HB 2957, which would more strictly prohibit the Department of Natural Resources from issuing or renewing any leases for Atlantic salmon aquaculture.

It would further prohibit Ecology and Fish and Wildlife from authorizing any activities related to Atlantic salmon aquaculture after the expiration of existing leases.

Agriculture and Natural Resources held a hearing on 2957 last Wednesday and recommended its passage Thursday. It has been referred to the Rules Committee for review.

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Assistant Managing Editor Mark Swanson can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55450, or [email protected].