By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

Salmon farming in Washington's Puget Sound has been exempt from certain water quality regulations for about 15 years, but that exemption will now be reconsidered due to a recent court ruling.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's approval of the exemption wasn't based on the best available science, so the agency must now reevaluate that decision, a federal judge ruled on April 28.

The ruling came as the result of legal challenge launched in 2008 by an environmental group, Wild Fish Conservancy, which claimed EPA violated the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act by approving the exemption.

Regulations developed by Washington's Department of Ecology exempted fish farms from certain sediment management standards in 1995. The EPA signed off on those rules years later, concluding they wouldn't injure any endangered or threatened species.

Wild Fish Conservancy worries that floating net pens used in salmon farming expose native salmon populations to disease and parasites from captive fish, among other threats.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour ruled in favor of the environmental group, because he said the EPA ignored two studies related to salmon farming developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

One of those studies indicated that farmed salmon pose a threat to native fish through interbreeding and competition for food, in the event they escape from the floating net pens.

Such an incident occurred in Washington in 1997, releasing about 300,000 farmed salmon into Puget Sound, according to the judge's order.

The existence of these studies should have been enough for the EPA to consider formal consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service before approving the regulations, Coughenour said.

The EPA's failure to consider the studies overrides all other aspects of the dispute, he said.

The exemption's future is of particular significance to one company, American Gold, which owns eight salmon farms in Puget Sound.

The company voluntarily intervened in the case as a defendant, arguing that salmon farming in Washington already has a much smaller environmental impact than in other parts of the world.

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