Walsh calls for an end to Atlantic salmon farms in Washington

On Saturday, August 19, a fish farm in the San Juan Islands near Anacortes suffered a structural failure to one of its net pens, containing more than 300,000 nearly-mature Atlantic salmon. Almost all of the fish escaped.

At first, Cooke Aquaculture—the Canadian company that operates the fish farm—claimed that “exceptionally high tides” related to the solar eclipse that occurred the following Monday had caused the net pen failure. Data quickly showed that the tides that Saturday weren’t especially high, so Cooke backed away from blaming the eclipse. The actual cause of the structural failure remains unclear.

Regardless of why, several hundred thousand non-native fish are now swimming loose in Puget Sound. Atlantic salmon are smaller than the species native to this area, topping out at about 10 pounds each when fully grown. They’re considered more docile than Pacific salmon, so better suited for farm breeding. And they can be raised year-round. That last part is troubling—because, let loose at this time of year, the Atlantic salmon can feast on juvenile Pacific salmon. With the number of native species already dwindling, a sudden injection of non-native potential predators poses a real risk to our local fisheries.

Faced with this, the three state agencies with oversight of Washington’s waters and fisheries—the Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Department of Ecology—met in Olympia, sent employees to the San Juan Islands to set up an Incident Command center and asked licensed fishermen to catch as many Atlantic salmon as possible. So far, several hundred have been caught.

On the Friday after the escape, I joined a legislators’ conference call in which the heads of WDFW, DNR and Ecology and their staffs reported on their responses. DNR pointed out that it was merely a landlord, renting space in state waters to Cooke Aquaculture. It reminded everyone that WDFW and Ecology were the ones responsible for regulatory oversight. WDFW said that it was as surprised as anyone by the “escapement” and was still investigating how many fish had gotten out and why. It had a plan on file for what to do in this situation—but wasn’t sure how far into that plan it was, because it wasn’t sure how many fish had escaped. Ecology informed us that it considered escaped fish “pollution” and planned to penalize Cooke Aquaculture accordingly.

No one addressed the 600-pound Coho in the room: Why, with our state hatcheries for native species running at a fraction of capacity, are we renting state waters to a Canadian company to raise Atlantic salmon?

Cooke Aquaculture is the most recent of several owners of the fish-farm operation. It got the net pens when it acquired Washington-based Icicle Seafoods in 2016. In the decade before that, Icicle had gone through several changes of ownership. But, while developing its fish-farm concept through the late 1990s and 2000s, Icicle had been a consistent and active donor in state politics. It made large contributions to the gubernatorial campaigns of Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire.

Back to the present: Bureaucrats thrive on crises. They’ll concentrate their “Incident Command” on the clean up of the “pollution.” They’ll offer projections about the near-term impacts of the “escapement.” And—working with political allies in the radical environmentalist movement—they’ll cite, fine and sue Cooke Aquaculture for the foreseeable future. (Cooke still has active fish farms in Puget Sound and on the north end of the Olympic Peninsula.)

What can the rest of us, who care about Washington’s fisheries, do to reduce the risks and improve the prospects of our native Pacific salmon?

First, we can put an end to Atlantic salmon fish farms in Washington waters. Rep. J.T. Wilcox and I have drafted a bill that will do that.

Second, we can increase hatchery production of native salmon. For the past few years, there’s been a heated debate over whether we should augment wild Pacific salmon populations with hatchery-raised fish of the same species. That debate seems trivial now, in the wake of 300,000 non-native fish being dumped into our waters. We need to crank up hatchery production of native species to outbreed the invasive Atlantic versions.

Bureaucratic hurdles remain. WDFW, which operates our state hatcheries, has gotten bogged down in questions of which of the three main native salmon species—Chinook, Coho and Chum—it should focus on. And it’s limited hatchery production in an effort to “naturalize” the fish it does produce. We don’t have time for such experiments. We need to increase production of all Pacific species.

Even the Chum, which some people consider the least desirable of the native species, has a role to play. It’s particularly well-suited for hatchery production around Willapa Bay—and could be the first step in a broader recovery. From there, we could move on to more Coho and high-end Chinook.

Our state’s approach to fisheries management needs major reform. The silver lining to the Atlantic salmon cloud could be that it compels us to smarter management of our native fish populations.

State Representative Jim Walsh, 19th Legislative District
428 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7806 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000