This is the first part in a series on the future of fish farming in the Pacific Northwest.
The Hope Island Fish Farm floats in the middle of Puget Sound, about a 15-minute boat ride from Whidbey Island’s Deception Pass. Narrow metal walkways surround giant nets anchored to the bottom of the sound. Those nets hold thousands of Atlantic salmon--though it’s difficult to see them till they jump.
“It’s very dark down there,” says Tom Glaspie, the site manager. “Swim right through them, and you won’t see a single fish.”
The Hope Island Fish Farm is the newest of Cooke Aquaculture’s eight fish farms in Puget Sound. This August, one of those farms broke, and 160,000 Atlantic salmon escaped. That event has renewed calls for regulating fish farms more intensely — or for taking the farms out of the Sound entirely. Anti-fish farm advocates say it’s better to farm salmon in tanks, on land.
Atlantic salmon have been farmed in the Sound for more than 30 years. That’s in part because Atlantic salmon are domesticated: They grow faster than Pacific salmon and don’t get into fights in the pens. It’s like the difference between raising cattle and raising bison.
There are environmental reasons as well. When Atlantic salmon escape, they can’t breed with native salmon. But, if Pacific salmon were to be domesticated and to escape, they could breed with wild fish and dilute their genetic stock.
But a lot of people are pretty concerned about other potential effects of fish farms, beyond the big escapes.
“Even more of a concern is the day in, day out impact of these things,” Washington state Senator Kevin Ranker says.
He and other fish farm opponents are making the most of the current outrage about escaped Atlantic salmon to try to draw attention to the stuff they’ve been complaining about for years. Fish farms in open water spread viruses and antibiotic resistance. And then, of course, there are fish escapes and the potential problems they bring.
“These net pens are allowed to pass feces through the net pens,” Ranker says. “They’re allowed to pass food pellets, which could have antibiotics in them, through the net pen. And, because the net pen is floating in our ecosystem, have impacts on the ecosystem.”
Old regulations and lax oversight
Ranker says Washington needs to revamp its oversight of fish farms.
Here’s how it currently works:
Cooke Aquaculture and other companies with fish farms lease the water where the fish farms are located from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, or DNR.
“It’s like a landlord/tenant relationship,” says Cori Simmons, a DNR spokesperson. “The landlord doesn’t regulate the legality of the activities that you do in your apartment, but, should you violate the law in your apartment and the police become involved, the landlord has the right to evict you.”
The laws companies have to follow have to do with things like water quality and diseases. The Departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife wrote those regulations — thirty years ago. Even the agencies themselves say they’re out of date.
The agencies give companies permits, and then DNR inspects to make sure the companies are following the rules. Up till now, there weren’t many inspections.
Glaspie’s been the site manager of the Hope Island fish farm since it opened six years ago.
“I’ve never, like, had a full inspection that I can remember of,” he says.
DNR has stepped up enforcement since the fish escape and plans to visit all eight of the fish farms in Puget Sound by late January 2018.
But those inspections don’t go nearly far enough for Senator Ranker, who wants to outlaw farming Atlantic salmon in Washington altogether. His goal is to pass legislation that wouldn’t renew any fish farm leases.
The last existing lease ends in 2025.
He says, in the meantime, his bill would require updating those thirty-year-old regulations “based on best available science.”
If Ranker gets what he wants, his bill would become law by June. New regulations would be in place next fall. And, by 2025, there would be no Atlantic salmon farms left in Puget Sound.
Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson Nell Halse says that would be a mistake. Her argument is that, if people in the Pacific Northwest can’t buy locally farmed Atlantic salmon, they’ll probably just import more farmed salmon from places like Chile and Thailand, with far less stringent environmental regulations.
“For people in Washington, people in Maine, if they’re going to be eating fish from a farm,” she says, “would you rather have fish that are raised locally, by your own people, under your regulations and oversight?”