OUTDOORS: State made right call in Port Angeles net-pen lease withdrawal

STATE COMMISSIONER OF Public Lands Hillary Franz made the difficult decision last week to shut down Cooke Aquaculture’s lease for its Atlantic salmon net-pen farm in Port Angeles Harbor.

Cooke, of course, is the same company responsible for the collapse and escape of some 160,000 Atlantic salmon weighing 8 to 10 pounds apiece from a similar facility in the San Juan Islands in late August.

The company at first tried to downplay the extent of the collapse and unintentional fish release, saying less than 5,000 fish escaped. That was quickly proven false.

Next was a large breach in corporate social responsibility — a big deal in my business classes at Washington State University — concerning Cooke’s offer of premium prices on the escaped Atlantic salmon caught by Lummi tribal fishermen in exchange for the Lummi Tribe silence on the removal of net pen aquaculture.

The Seattle Times reported the Lummi Tribe “tartly rejected the offer.”

“Your demand to keep quiet for a few extra dollars is insulting,” Timothy Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, responded in a Sept. 14 letter.

Nell Halse, vice president for communications for Cooke, told the Times the offer “was not an attempt to muzzle or insult the Lummi Nation, but rather an effort to negotiate toward common ground and respect the interests and concerns of both parties at the table …”

Sure.

Problems in Port Angeles

This time around in Port Angeles, state inspectors with the state Department of Natural Resources allege Cooke has allowed the Ediz Hook farm — one large pen with 14 cages and a smaller pen with another six cages — to move outside the boundaries of its lease, causing a hazard to boats navigating the harbor.

Cooke “failed to replace unencapsulated flotation material in order to prevent Styrofoam from disintegrating into the water,” a press release said

Two net-pen anchor chains for the farm are not connected, and a third has an open link which is vulnerable to failure and a fish jailbreak.

And Cooke also has been fined $8,000 by the state Department of Ecology for water quality violations at its Bainbridge Island farm such as putting polluting matter into state waters, changing boat engine oil over the waters and allowing wastewater from pressure washing into the Puget Sound.

Cooke also wanted to move those Port Angeles Harbor pens over to Green Point, placing the pens in the sometimes heavy surf of the Strait of Juan de Fuca at a spot well known for producing good-sized halibut.

But the $9 million Cooke project was put on hold after the Cypress Island net pen collapse.

And Gov. Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on new net-pen operations after the incident. The Department of Natural Resources is leading a state investigation that is expected to be completed in January.

I agree with all of it.

Cooke has shown a glaring lack of accountability and responsibility in its operations in our state — with government agencies, with tribal bodies and with the public.

Simply put, I don’t trust the company to operate here within the constraints set forth by state agencies.

But humanity’s seemingly inexhaustable appetite for seafood is well-known. There are millions who get a rich source of protein from these farmed fish.

I fear (even more) for wild and hatchery fish numbers if fish farms were outlawed and disappeared.

It might make dollars and cents for aquaculture firms to farm fish in our inland waterways. But does it make sense?

At a recent Clallam County Commissioners meeting to discuss a proposed update to the county’s 1976 Shoreline Management Program Jamie Michel, biologist and project manager with the Port Angeles-based Coastal Watershed Institute, said the negative effects of net pen aquaculture are “widely known and understood.”

“These are all avoidable through upland contained systems,” Michel said. “The language within the SMP should be modified to read that net pens are prohibited in water and should be converted to upland contained facilities.”

This would likely make the job of farming fish more difficult and make Atlantic salmon more expensive at the grocery store.

But it seems a small price to pay for some semblance of piece of mind in a place as special as the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.

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