The large-scale escape of non-native Atlantic salmon from Cooke Aquaculture Pacific last August was likely due to inadequate maintenance and cleaning of the net-pen before it failed, state officials say.
Investigators found the company massively underestimated how many fish escaped. The number could be anywhere from 243,000 to 263,000, state officials said in a report released Tuesday, Jan. 30.
Cooke’s vice president of public relations, Joel Richardson, said in a press release that he thinks the report was released to influence legislators on bills currently moving through state legislature that would effectively ban Atlantic salmon net-pens.
“Investigators with limited experience in aquaculture or net-pen operations have produced an inaccurate and misleading document,” Richardson said Tuesday, Jan 30.
Senate Bill 6086, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Ranker (who represents Orcas Island and part of Bellingham), would prevent the state from giving out new or renewed permits for non-native fish pens. Cooke Aquaculture is currently the only company operating non-native fish pens in the region. All of its current leases in the state will expire by 2025.
“These are our waters. The bones of our ancestors are buried in these waters,” said Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, at a public hearing for the bill on Jan 9. “The sacrifices of our ancestors are here in these waters and always will be.”
When members of the Lummi Nation realized how big the spill was, they declared a state of emergency. Lummi fishermen alone caught 400,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon, Julius said.
Supporters of the bill are concerned with the environmental damage non-native fish pens could have. If the fish become an established invasive species they could compete with and endanger native salmon, said Karlee Deatherage, a policy analyst for environmental education nonprofit RE Sources for Sustainable Communities.
“While the escapement brought this event to our attention, the real concern to me is the day in, day out impact of these facilities,” Ranker said at the hearing.
Chemicals and antibiotics used at fish farms and disease outbreak in pens are also concerns, Ranker said.
“These are our waters. The bones of our ancestors are buried in these waters. The sacrifices of our ancestors are here in these waters and always will be.”
Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation
Passing the bill would effectively end Cooke’s existing operations in Puget Sound. Cooke employs 80 workers directly and supports fishing boat and processing plant employees indirectly, Richardson said.
But Ranker said thousands of jobs and billions in annual spending depend upon a healthy Salish Sea.
“When we talk about jobs, I hope we’re also considering the jobs that are associated with the need for a healthy marine environment,” Ranker said.
Dave Pringle, a policy analyst for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said constituents strongly support banning net pens in the Puget Sound.
Western alumna Chiara D’Angelo-Patricio helps manage the campus group Students for the Salish Sea. She occupied the capitol lawn in Olympia with a group of indigenous activists and allies for three days at the start of the legislative session on Jan. 8.
The group demanded banning Atlantic salmon fish farms and government action to stop the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in British Columbia.
Members of the indigenous activist group Protectors of the Salish Sea were some of those who occupied the capitol lawn.
“There’s a lot of reasons why first peoples are leading these movements. It’s just who we are,” said Paul Cheoketen Wagner, founder of Protectors of the Salish Sea and a member of the Saanich tribe. “It’s nothing new for us, it’s just a new circumstance.”
Washington has a legal obligation to protect salmon because of treaty rights given to the tribes, Wagner said.
“It’s so ironic, they’ve already wiped out most of them,” Wagner said. “They’re going extinct.”
Pringle said the Lummi Nation was actively involved in cleaning up the salmon spill and worked with Ranker in writing the language of the bill.
Ranker received a letter signed by every Washington state treaty tribe in support of legislation banning Atlantic salmon net pens.
“Never before have I seen all 21 tribes on one letter like that,” Ranker said.
The presence of Atlantic salmon net pens puts native salmon at too great a risk, said Lisa Wilson, the Endangered Species Act manager and policy representative for Lummi Natural Resources.
“A healthy, productive Salish Sea is essential to the survival of the Lummi Nation,” Wilson said in a public hearing with the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, Jan. 25. “The Lummi Nation has a sacred obligation to protect these salmon.”
State officials said a small number of Atlantic salmon were found in the Skagit River, but have not been seen in other rivers. Atlantic salmon have been caught in the river as recently as Jan. 26, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Cooke Aquaculture employees spoke against the bill at the Jan. 9 public hearing, including Tom Glaspie, who manages the farm at Hope Island and has been an employee for 13 years.
“We spend more time with these fish than we do our own families,” Glaspie said.
Cooke executives also spoke against the bill at the hearing, citing rural job and investment loss as major concerns.
The legislation would qualify employees who lost their job as a result of this bill for the Training Benefits Program, extending unemployment benefits for workers choosing to train for a new job.
Richardson said some employees have worked at these fish farms for decades, including employees who spoke out against the bill at the Jan. 9 public hearing.
Proponents of the bill are concerned about Atlantic salmon breeding and spawning in Pacific waters. Researchers found Atlantic salmon present in 36 percent of rivers surveyed on Vancouver Island in a 2014 study. The study cited information that chronic minor salmon escapes from farms are often undetected, and surveyed 41 rivers known to support Pacific salmon. Victoria, on the south end of the island, is about 30 miles from Cypress Island where the fish escaped from Cooke pens in August.
Richardson disagreed, saying that there was a lack of environmental impact.
“We believe that farmed salmon is consistent with Washington’s strong environmental ethic and agricultural heritage,” Richardson said.