Puget Sound currently has eight operational Atlantic salmon net pen facilities – three just offshore of Bainbridge Island, three in the north Sound in Cyprus Island Bay, one near the mouth of the Skagit River, and one in Port Angeles Harbor near the mouth of the Elwha River. These net pens have been operating in Washington for decades under a regulatory regime that does not comply with many international standards, especially those that protect wild fish. In fact, had Washington’s original net pen regulatory guidelines that were published in 1986 been implemented, it is likely that none of these net pens would have ever been permitted.
Unfortunately, neither the public nor the government understands the true impact of these Atlantic salmon net pens because:
However, we do know these net pens have a poor environmental safety record that includes thousands of escaped Atlantic salmon, a major viral outbreak, and decades of pollution. This history of environmental harm is consistent with the environmental record of the Atlantic salmon net pen industry, which has an extensive history of negatively impacting local ecosystems and harming wild fish populations everywhere they operate.
For years, a Washington-based company called Icicle Seafoods owned and operated all eight net pens in Puget Sound. However, in 2016 Icicle and their Puget Sound Atlantic salmon net pens were purchased by Cooke Aquaculture, an international corporation with major salmon farm operations in Chile, Spain, Scotland, Canada, and Maine. Following their purchase, Cooke Aquaculture unveiled an ambitious plan to dramatically expand their operation in Washington and transform Puget Sound into an epicenter of Atlantic salmon net pen production.
The first part of Cooke Aquaculture’s plan is to build a large, open-ocean net pen that would be placed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the east of Port Angeles. Until now, all of Washington’s eight net pen facilities have been smaller in size and located in protected waters close to shore. The environmental impacts of these smaller, sheltered-water net pens have been significant, but the potential impacts are orders of magnitude larger with this unprecedented and unproven proposal, which is located right in the heart of Western Washington’s most important salmon and steelhead migration habitat. If this net pen is approved, this design will set a dangerous precedent and the rest of the Strait will no longer be safe from Cooke Aquaculture’s plan to scale up their operation.
Considering the Atlantic salmon net pen industry's global history of destruction; the economic, cultural, recreational, and ecological value of Washington's waters; and the fact that this industry has been banned in every other West Coast state, one would think Washington would oppose this plan or at least approach it cautiously. Unfortunately, Washington has taken the opposite approach and has actually crafted state policy to encourage the development and expansion of commercial Atlantic salmon aquaculture (RCW 15.85).
Myth 1: The Atlantic salmon net pen industry is a responsible environmental steward with a track record of protecting native fish and waters.
Everywhere Atlantic salmon net pens operate - from Norway to British Columbia to Chile - ecosystems and wild fish populations suffer. The long list of environmental impacts created by Atlantic salmon net pens includes issues such as polluting local waters with millions of pounds of untreated waste; the spread of lethal sea lice to wild salmon; disease outbreaks that spread to wild fish; deadly algae blooms; pesticide induced die offs of shrimp and crabs; and whale, otter, and seal deaths caused by entanglement in net pens. In fact, a major reason for the net pen industry’s interest in the expansion of net pens in Puget Sound is because farmed Atlantic salmon prices are at record highs across the globe due to environmental issues.
Myth 2: Atlantic salmon net pens are more stringently regulated than any other industry in Washington.
Although the list of regulations for the net pen industry may seem robust at first glance, a deeper dive into them reveals that many of these regulations either require the bare minimum or nothing at all. Five state agencies have authority to regulate some component of the net pen industry in Washington, but there is little coordination amongst these agencies and often regulations go unenforced. Additionally, many of the regulations are designed to give the industry the authority to self-monitor and self-report. Considering the major disincentive to turn themselves in for failure to comply, many of these regulations go unenforced and are ineffective.
Myth 3: Washington’s Atlantic salmon net pen industry is transparent and works cooperatively with government officials and scientists to minimize its environmental impact.
Washington’s insufficient regulatory regime does not demand transparency. Rather, its loose set of recommendations gives the net pen industry tremendous power to self-monitor and requires little cooperation with state agencies. While the State has the authority to test the fish for disease or parasites and access dead fish when there is a viral outbreak, these activities require the company's permission. In the past when there have been viral outbreaks, this system has created an environment that has hindered the State from exercising their statutory authority. Additionally, this system allows the industry to hide behind the veil of "proprietary information," which means the public may never have the ability to learn about incidents.
The environmental impact of this flawed regulatory system is exacerbated by the fact that the net pen industry has never complied with the State's existing guidelines for environmental responsibility. For example, the industry has never followed recommendations about limiting production in an area as well as recommendations for siting net pens near marine sanctuaries or in endangered species habitat. Those recommendations and guidelines were put in place to protect state trust resources and to limit the amount of unfiltered pollution discharged into a given marine area, but the industry chooses to ignore these guidelines.
Myth 4: Atlantic salmon net pens have been operating safely in Puget Sound for decades.
We do not know the total impact of Atlantic salmon net pens in Puget Sound because of Washington’s lax regulations and the industry’s lack of transparency. However, we do know these net pens have a poor safety record that includes thousands of escaped Atlantic salmon, the use of chemicals to try to control sea lice, a major viral outbreak, and decades of pollution.
The most well-known net pen issue in Washington occurred back in 2012 when a lethal IHNV (infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus) outbreak spread to three net pens in the Sound killing over two million pounds of Atlantic salmon and creating an unprecedented viral threat to Puget Sound’s wild salmon and steelhead. To this day, we still do not know the full impact of this outbreak because Washington's regulatory process is so insufficient that net pen operators were able to prevent the government’s disease experts from monitoring their pens during the entire five-month epidemic.
Myth 5: Atlantic salmon net pens pose a minimal risk to wild salmon populations.
High-density open water net pens are essentially breeding grounds for infection, disease, and parasites that can easily spread to wild salmon and steelhead. Pathogens in the marine environment are even more volatile, and there is no way to contain or prevent the spread of these infections in an open, liquid environment. Making matters worse, many of Washington’s existing and proposed net pens are located right in the path of out-migrating juvenile salmon, which are particularly vulnerable to these lethal infections and parasites like sea lice. In addition to impacting the immediate vicinity of the net pens, the tides and currents in Puget Sound carry parasites, pathogens, and pollution far afield.
Myth 6: The net pen industry is financially responsible for its environmental impact.
A major benefit of open-water net pens for the salmon farming industry is that many of the environmental costs are externalized and placed on the backs of the public. As opposed to closed containment land-based systems, which responsibly process and dispose of their waste, open-water net pens use the public's water as a free dumping ground. The millions of pounds of untreated fecal waste Washington's existing Atlantic salmon net pens create and release into the Sound is equivalent to that of a small city's. This pollution and its externalized costs are hindering Puget Sound recovery efforts, an issue that may soon become more problematic because critical federal funding for Puget Sound restoration is on the chopping block in our nation's capital.
Myth 7: Expansion of net pens will be a big economic boon and job creator for Washington.
The economic costs of letting an international net pen conglomerate expand this destructive industry in Washington far outweigh the economic benefits. The net pen industry has a long history of hiring a bare minimum of employees and has been criticized around the globe for failing to deliver on its jobs creation promises. Plus, there are no requirements for this industry to hire Washingtonians, and the fees structure for operating in Washington waters generates very little revenue for the state. When you compare that minimal benefit to the enormous economic, recreational, and ecological costs of these net pens, it is clear that Atlantic salmon net pens are a bad deal for Washingtonians.
Myth 8: Washington is fortunate that the Atlantic salmon net pen industry wants to expand its operation in the state’s waters.
While the Atlantic salmon net pen industry wants us to believe that turning Puget Sound into an epicenter of Atlantic salmon net pens is great for Washington, nothing could be further from the truth. As explained above, the economic, recreational, and ecological costs of net pens far outweigh the minimal benefits. California, Oregon, and Alaska have all come to this conclusion and banned Atlantic salmon net pens from operating in their states years ago in order to protect their native fish and the health of their waters.
Myth 9: Atlantic salmon net pens in Washington will be an invaluable food source for Washingtonians.
It is hard to get a complete grasp on these numbers because they are deemed “proprietary” by the net pen industry and are therefore not publicly available. However, we know that very little of the Atlantic salmon currently produced in Puget Sound is consumed by Washingtonians and that stores like PCC Markets refuse to sell these fish. Through their purchasing power, Washingtonians have made it clear that they far prefer the state's wild Pacific salmon over the state's farmed Atlantic salmon. There is no reason to believe that fact will change if the net pen industry expands its operation in Washington.
Myth 10: Open water net pens are the only option for Atlantic salmon production in Washington because land-based, closed containment aquaculture systems are not economically viable.
The Atlantic salmon net pen industry claims that the only economically feasible way to meet rising consumer demand for salmon is open-water net pens, but that is not true. This argument misrepresents the potential of alternatives like land-based aquaculture, and it also ignores the externalized costs of marine net pens, costs that are placed solely on the shoulders of the public. More environmentally responsible land-based aquaculture systems can lift that cost off the shoulders of the public, but this industry can only flourish with the promise of government commitment and long-term stability.