A Cooke Aquaculture fish farm
Recovery operations at a net pen used by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to farm salmon near Cypress Island following the collapse of the facility's perimeter.

Last week, in a move applaud­ed by trib­al nations, Wash­ing­ton’s Com­mis­sion­er of Pub­lic Lands Hilary Franz made the announce­ment that the Ever­green State’s pub­licly owned aquat­ic lands will no longer host any open water fish farms.

The Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources is ter­mi­nat­ing Cooke Aqua­cul­ture’s remain­ing two fin­fish net pen aqua­cul­ture facil­i­ties leas­es. The com­pa­ny will have a few weeks “to fin­ish oper­a­tions and begin remov­ing its facil­i­ties and repair­ing any envi­ron­men­tal dam­age,” the agency said on Novem­ber 18th.

“As we’ve seen too clear­ly here in Wash­ing­ton, there is no way to safe­ly farm fin­fish in open sea net pens with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing our strug­gling native salmon,” Franz said in a state­ment. “Today, I’m announc­ing an end to the practice.”

“We, as a state, are going to do bet­ter by our salmon, by our fish­er­men, and by our tribes. Com­mer­cial fin­fish farm­ing is detri­men­tal to salmon, orcas and marine habi­tat. I’m proud to stand with the rest of the west coast today by say­ing our waters are far too impor­tant to risk for fish farm­ing profits.”

This deci­sion has been a long time com­ing. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists, fish­er­men, tribes and oth­ers have worked for decades to get fish farms out of Wash­ing­ton’s waters.

“After the incred­i­ble news announced ear­li­er this week, it is almost impos­si­ble to believe we are now cel­e­brat­ing an even big­ger, ground­break­ing vic­to­ry for our wild salmon, orcas, and the health of Puget Sound,” said Emma Helver­son, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Wild Fish Con­ser­van­cy, in a press release. “By deny­ing new leas­es to Cooke and bring­ing for­ward this com­pre­hen­sive, bold new pol­i­cy to pre­vent com­mer­cial net pens from ever oper­at­ing in Wash­ing­ton marine waters again, Com­mis­sion­er Franz is ensur­ing Puget Sound will be pro­tect­ed, not just now, but far into the future for the ben­e­fit of gen­er­a­tions to come.”

“This ends a long his­to­ry of indus­try ‘spokes­peo­ple’ who have been involved with Marine Resources Com­mit­tees both in Clal­lam and Jef­fer­son Coun­ties, tout­ing the ben­e­fits of these pens and dis­rupt­ing any­one com­ing for­ward to raise con­cerns, such as when Pro­fes­sor Dill, a researcher from a dis­tin­guished Cana­di­an Uni­ver­si­ty came to Port Ange­les a few years ago to dis­cuss his sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly based con­cerns and was shout­ed down by indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives,” wrote Al Berg­stein, edi­tor and pub­lish­er of the Olympic Penin­su­la Envi­ron­men­tal News.

If you’d like a refresh­er on the destruc­tive ram­i­fi­ca­tions of open net pen fish farms, the David Suzu­ki Foun­da­tion has a good primer at its website.

“A 2021 Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia study con­firmed that farmed fish are trans­fer­ring PRV to wild salmon, and found that prox­im­i­ty to fish farms increas­es the like­li­hood of wild Chi­nook being infect­ed,” a May 5th post doc­u­ment­ing the sup­pressed sci­ence explains. “One of the orig­i­nal DFO study’s authors, fed­er­al biol­o­gist Kristi Miller-Saun­ders, called the delay a ‘trav­es­ty’ that has con­tributed to ongo­ing doubt about viral impacts of fish farms on wild salmon.”

An exec­u­tive for Cooke Aqua­cul­ture said the com­pa­ny is unhappy.

“Cooke Aqua­cul­ture Pacif­ic was very dis­ap­point­ed to receive the Wash­ing­ton Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources (DNR) notices not to renew our two steel­head fish farm­ing leas­es in Rich Pas­sage off Bain­bridge Island and off Hope Island in Skag­it Bay. Reg­u­la­tors and pol­i­cy­mak­ers must respon­si­bly fol­low the sci­ence and judi­cial prece­dents in mak­ing key deci­sions regard­ing marine aqua­cul­ture, which we do not believe was the case in this instance,” said Cooke VP Joel Richard­son.

Hope­ful­ly, we have reached the point where we can final­ly put this destruc­tive prac­tice to rest in Wash­ing­ton. That leaves British Colum­bia, where the indus­try has a much larg­er pres­ence. Fish farms in B.C. are also slat­ed to be phased out, but will the province fol­low through and give com­pa­nies like Cooke the boot?

Remem­ber salmon orig­i­nat­ing from and return­ing to their home rivers and streams along the Pacif­ic west coast, cross bor­ders, min­gle and migrate far off shore, so it mat­ters what hap­pens in British Columbia.

Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon, and Alas­ka thank­ful­ly nev­er allowed the fish farm indus­try to set up shop in their waters. Only Wash­ing­ton and British Colum­bia did.

Even after fish farms are fin­ished being ban­ished from the Sal­ish Sea, a boom­let of indus­tri­al off­shore facil­i­ties being devel­oped around the world could still threat­en the marine waters of the Pacif­ic Northwest.

While it is a big relief to see our aquat­ic lands lib­er­at­ed from Cooke’s messy and harm­ful oper­a­tions, the threat of fish farms is not gone.

Activists, tribes, and gov­ern­ments will need to work togeth­er to pro­tect the world com­mu­ni­ty and Earth­’s oceans from this prob­lem for years to come.

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