Net pens allowed as conditional use in Clallam’s draft shoreline plan

PORT ANGELES — Net pen aquaculture is allowed as a conditional use in open waters under Clallam County’s draft Shoreline Master Program, commissioners were told.

The proposed update is “a lot more robust” than the existing plan in terms of policies, regulations and application requirements for net pens and other types of aquaculture, Planning Manager Steve Gray said Monday.

“My understanding is the county would not be able to update its SMP if we just did an outright prohibition [on net pens] across the board,” Gray told commissioners in a 4½-hour work session.

Aquaculture is one of many components in the county’s draft SMP, a 258-page document to guide future development along marine shorelines and inland waterways under the concept of “no net loss” of ecological functions. The draft is available at www.clallam.net.

Commissioners will conduct a public hearing on the draft Tuesday, Dec. 12.

The hearing will begin at 10:30 a.m. in Room 160 at the Clallam County Courthouse, 223 E. Fourth St., Port Angeles.

The state Department of Ecology has final approval of shoreline plans.

“I think we’d have a very difficult time approving an outright prohibition,” Ecology Regional Shoreline Planner Michelle McConnell said of net pens at the commissioners’ work session.

“I think right now we’re feeling pretty comfortable with the approach of the draft, which is a conditional-use permit with other criteria.”

Given the complexity of the SMP and the expected volume of testimony, board chairman Mark Ozias said it was “highly unlikely” that the board would vote immediately after the hearing.

“That could happen,” Ozias said, “but we’re anticipating a continued high level of interest.”

Tens of thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon were released into Puget Sound on Aug. 19 when the net pens at Cooke Aquaculture’s Cypress Island fish farm collapsed.

Nearly half of the 305,000 Atlantics from the collapsed facility are thought to have escaped, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Prior to the collapse, Cooke Aquaculture planed to move its Atlantic-salmon farming operation from Ediz Hook to a new site about two miles north of the mouth of Morse Creek.

The $9 million project was put on hold after the release at Cypress Island.

Before building a new facility in Clallam County, Cooke would be required to obtain a substantial development permit from a hearing examiner. The county permit would be subject to approval by Ecology.

Gov. Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on new net-pen operations after the Cypress Island net pen collapse.

DNR is investigating the incident and is expected to release a report in January.

Gray said the state Legislature might consider a prohibition on non-native fish aquaculture next session.

“Certainly, if it was prohibited at the state level, we would have to prohibit it locally,” Gray said.

Because of the potentially contentious nature of the topic, Ozias requested information on aquaculture and net pen operations from Jeff Ward, Clallam County Marine Resources Committee chairman.

Ward, a retired Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientist, read a 1,104-word prepared statement that reflected varying viewpoints within the 15-member committee. The advisory panel could not reach a consensus on Atlantic salmon net pen operations in Clallam County.

“Our MRC recognizes the value that aquaculture plays in providing locally grown seafood to the citizens of Washington and elsewhere in the world,” the statement read.

“Private and tribal aquaculture facilities are a common sight in Washington, and they grow and harvest a variety of species, including geoduck, oysters, clams, black cod and Atlantic salmon.

“We also understand the public concern surrounding Atlantic salmon net pens in general, and the Cypress Island event in particular,” the MRC statement continued.

“We believe the heightened awareness of Atlantic salmon net-pen operations is a good thing, and that it provides an opportunity to explore the socioeconomic, cultural and environmental trade-offs associated with the industry.”

The statement listed several suggestions for the county’s SMP, including new language to address structures in high-energy environments and a sampling plan to assess fish health, risk of disease to wild stocks and water quality.

McConnell suggested that county adopt its draft SMP and incorporate new suggestions as possible amendments.

”At this point, we would not support the county delaying the SMP,” McConnell told commissioners.

“You guys are a little bit past the target of where we were hoping to be, so we want to keep things moving forward.”

Ecology officials began working on a “guidance document” for managing net pens before the Cypress Island fish spill occurred, McConnell said. That document is scheduled to be released in 2019.

“Right now, that project is essentially on hold while the investigation of the Cypress Island incident is ongoing,” McConnell said.

DNR is leading the Cypress Island investigation with help from the state departments of Fish and Wildlife and Ecology.

The net pen collapse was mentioned in a December legislative update co-signed by state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, state Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim and state Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles.

“The catastrophic release of farmed Atlantic salmon put native salmon at risk along with the millions of dollars in taxpayer money we’ve invested to protect our salmon runs,” the 24th District delegation said.

“Next session, we are working on legislation to take a close look at fish farming and aquaculture with non-native species.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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