When the state Department of Ecology kicked off the new year by soliciting early input on a net pen management project, it reawakened concerns among fish conservationists.
Project coordinator Cedar Bouta sent out an email Jan. 4 inviting public input. The email explained that the departments of Ecology, Agriculture and Fish & Wildlife are replacing the state’s 30-year-old management recommendations for commercial marine finfish aquaculture, or net pens, in collaboration with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.
Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy in Duvall, had worked in the past with former Jefferson County Commissioner Phil Johnson to oppose net pens.
While the original opportunity for early input was slated to end Jan. 24, the planning team has extended that deadline to March 4 in response to requests from the Wild Fish Conservancy and others for more time. Bouta said the extended deadline also provides the planning team with more time to reach a broader range of stakeholders.
According to Bouta, the project’s goal is to update the state’s guidance for the industry and coastal managers – including state and local government regulators – and provide them with the most current scientific data and methods.
“We’re not making any decisions here,” Bouta said. “This is not a decision to allow more net pens. But if and when new net pens are proposed, they’ll be able to be reviewed with science-based planning tools and management recommendations that aren’t outdated.”
Bouta added that the planning team also aims to ensure that any future net pen aquaculture is sustainable and protects native salmon, while contributing to local food production and jobs.
Beardslee’s view is not nearly so sanguine. He noted that Seattle’s Icicle Seafoods was purchased by Canada’s Cooke Seafood last year, and warned that larger corporations such as Cooke have more incentive to expand Atlantic salmon net pens in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Beardslee cited research from British Columbia, in one of the highest-density areas of Atlantic salmon, showing “a very strong correlation” between greater numbers of net pens and increased infestations of sea lice in juvenile fish.
“Remember, juvenile fish are only an inch and a half to two inches long,” Beardslee said. “It only takes a couple of sea lice for them to perish. They move differently when they’re infested, in ways that attract predators.”
Beardslee cited international standards spacing net pens 5 kilometers apart. By contrast, of the eight Atlantic salmon net pen facilities located in Puget Sound, he noted that three are sited just off Bainbridge Island, floating between two state parks and the Orchard Rocks marine reserve.
“Two of the net pens are actually within the reserve’s boundaries,” Beardslee said. “That’s right smack in the middle of prime wild salmon habitat.”
Beardslee recalled a 2012 outbreak of the infectious hematopoietic necrosis (IHN) virus.
“With individual fish in the wild, this sort of illness takes care of itself,” Beardslee said. “Predators minimize the spread. When they see it in a fish hatchery, they kill all the fish and sterilize the facility. But in 2012, it spread to all three of those net pens, and 2 million pounds of Atlantic salmon died.”
Beardslee deemed net pen aquaculture “the most unregulated industry I’m aware of,” to the point that the industry is responsible for reporting on itself, and can deny access to supervisory agencies such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“And when another bad virus shuts these pens down, it’ll be the citizens who pay for it, not the companies,” Beardslee said. “They’re not required to place a bond in case they cause any harm.”