PAT NEAL: The future of fishing

IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news.

Cooke Aquaculture announced plans to begin raising steelhead in net pens in Washington state waters.

This follows a long and convoluted history of aquaculture in Port Angeles Harbor that began back in the last century.

It was a time in our distant past when salmon fishing was a way of life.

You could get your limit of salmon right inside the harbor, which was a good thing when the westerly gales were blowing boats off the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Then came the net pens filled with Atlantic salmon.

They were allowed to float in a public waterway, denying us our right to fish, polluting with uneaten food pellets and fish waste, spreading disease to passing wild fish while subjecting them to pesticides, antibiotics and parasites.

At the time we thought putting the net pens in the Port Angeles Harbor was the aquatic equivalent of raising hogs at Civic Field.

Who cares about your silly ballgames when there is money to be made at public expense.

We overlooked the fact that all over the rest of the United States farmed fish such as tilapia, catfish, cobia and Arctic char were being raised in land-based tank systems where the water is recirculated and filtered, reducing the risk of disease transfer, pollution and escapes.

No, we were OK with a multi-national corporation taking over a public waterway for private gain.

That was until 2017 when an estimated 160,000 Atlantic salmon escaped from a Cooke Aquaculture net pen near Cypress Island.

It was the sort of environmental nightmare that people who fish are constantly faced with, so you just get used to it and try to look on the bright side.

Farm-raised Atlantic salmon may be chemically laced, dye-infused, physically grotesque blobs of futuristic protoplasm but they’re better than no fish at all.

We thought there could be some pretty good fishing if you just threw a handful of gravel on the water to simulate feeding time at the fish farm and the bite would be on.

The bite was short-lived.

Cooke Aquaculture lost its permit to raise Atlantic salmon in Port Angeles Harbor.

Now they are back with a plan to raise steelhead in net pens in state waters.

If history is any indication, the pencil-pushing functionaries that sell our natural resources to the lowest bidder will rubber stamp their application.

I say if we can’t beat them join them.

It always seemed odd that a private company could raise almost a million invasive Atlantic salmon in our harbor but the state of Washington couldn’t raise one Pacific salmon in the same water.

We need to look no further than Juneau, Alaska, to see the dramatic effect net pens could have on rebuilding our salmon runs.

It started when a graduate of the now discontinued fisheries program at Peninsula College in Port Angeles moved to Juneau.

He began raising salmon in a cave behind a waterfall.

This eventually led to the construction of a $10 million salmon hatchery in downtown Juneau named for this most distinguished of Peninsula College alumni, Ladd Macaulay.

The Ladd Macaulay Hatchery releases 100 million salmon a year into net pens at the mouths of creeks.

Eventually, the salmon return to the creeks where they were imprinted, supporting a commercial and recreational fishing fleet, shore facilities, resorts and endangered marine mammals that flock to the region to gorge on salmon.

The latest proposal to raise steelhead in state waters is not a bad idea.

At least when they get loose, we’ll have something to fish for.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild [email protected].