Department of Natural Resources ruling may derail Port Angeles fish farms

A steelhead fish farm planned in Port Angeles Harbor may not be possible following a decision from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, but further details won’t be available until Friday.

On Nov. 14, DNR announced it would end the two remaining finfish net pen aquaculture leases on state-owned aquatic lands, currently leased by Cooke Aquaculture of New Brunswick, Canada. Department officials said Cooke Aquaculture has until Dec. 14 to finish steelhead farming and start deconstructing its equipment, The Seattle Times reported.

Cooke’s pens are located in Rich Passage near Bainbridge Island and Hope Island in Skagit Bay.

In 2019, Cooke entered into an agreement with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe to raise native female steelhead trout, but following the Nov. 14 announcement, the project’s backers are concerned about the future of the project.

“We don’t know. The jury is somewhat out,” Ron Allen, Chairman/CEO of the Tribe, said Tuesday.

“By eliminating all the other pens, it doesn’t make our project viable.”

Allen said the kind of fish farming Jamestown and Cooke had planned is only possible with several other pens in the area; without those, the project won’t work.

“As soon as you eliminate all the other pens, then basically, that is a backdoor way of saying ‘no’ to Jamestown,” Allen said.

DNR said future net pen policy will be announced Friday by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz at a news conference in Bainbridge Island.

“Following the denials of these lease renewals, (Franz) is reviewing policies for net pen salmon aquaculture throughout Washington’s state-owned aquatic lands, and will announce this decision at a press conference alongside partners and tribes at 11 a.m. Friday,” DNR said.

DNR Communications Manager Joe Smilie said Monday’s announcement had no impact on the Port Angeles project but that Franz had not made a final decision about the future of finfish net pen aquaculture on state-owned lands.

“The commissioner has not signed off on this final policy. She has a couple options in front of her,” Smilie said.

Franz would provide more information on the topic Friday, Smilie said.

The conference will be livestreamed on TVW, which provides live coverage of state government meetings.

In a statement, Franz referred to a 2017 net pen failure at a facility owned by Cooke in Cypress Island which released thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon into the region.

“Since the catastrophic Cypress Island net pen collapse in 2017, I have stood tall to defend the waters of Puget Sound,” Franz said.

“This effort began by terminating finfish net pen operations due to lease violations. Despite years of litigation — and a company that has fought us every step of the way — we are now able to deny lease renewals for the remaining net pen sites,” she continued.

Cook lost its lease to operate an Atlantic salmon farm in Port Angeles harbor after the state said it wasn’t adequately maintained and was outside its leasehold boundaries.

The state Legislature in 2018 passed a law effectively phasing out net pen farming of exotic species in Washington waters.

Cooke pivoted to raise steelhead, but DNR officials said Cooke’s operations could pose risks to the state’s environment.

Feeding fish in concentrated areas releases nutrients and organic matter that can contribute to algae production, state officials wrote. And fish feces can degrade the ocean floor environment.

“Today, we are returning our waters to wild fish and natural habitat,” Franz said.

“Today, we are freeing Puget Sound of enclosed cages.”

In a written statement, Cooke Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson said the company was disappointed by the decision.

“We were surprised by (Franz’s) decision,” Richardson said. “Over the past five years, Cooke has worked to foster productive working relationships with Tribes, DNR staff, and other state agencies.

“A recent Federal Biological Opinion and a recent Washington Supreme Court decision both reaffirm the state of the science that fish farming does not have an adverse impact on the environment,” he continued.

“All of these factors are contrary to DNR’s decision to not renew our leases.”

Allen said Jamestown was still interested in finding a way to make the project work, and was deeply critical of DNR’s approach to lands management.

“Even though (Franz) is making this announcement, it’s not dead on arrival,” Allen said. “Do we litigate, or do we legislate? We may have to go back to the Legislature.”