DNR ends net pen aquaculture in state-owned waters

The state of Washington will no longer allow commercial finfish net pens on its aquatic lands, but Jamestown S’Klallam Chairman/CEO W. Ron Allen said the tribe remains intent upon pursuing a planned partnership with Cooke Aquaculture to build a steelhead fish farm in the Port Angeles area.

Hilary Franz, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner of Public Lands, announced the decision Friday, Nov. 18, at a news conference at Fort Ward Park on Bainbridge Island.

“We’re here today because of a stark truth: salmon are in danger of going extinct,” Franz said. “It is our true intent that Washington’s publicly owned waters will be free from net pen fish farming forever.”

The announcement was expected by the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, who in 2019 signed an agreement with Cooke Aquaculture of New Brunswick, Canada to raise native female steelhead trout in Port Angeles Harbor.

On Nov. 14, DNR said it would not renew Cooke’s two remaining leases in Puget Sound, signaling the move away from the industry.

Allen said the tribe will investigate alternate action to save the project.

“We need to see what we can do to preserve the industry in the Salish Sea,” Allen said. “It’s a bad call. (Franz) is wrong on the science. From our perspective, it’s a political decision not a science-based decision.”

During the conference, Franz emphasized DNR’s collaboration with local tribes, but Allen said not all the area’s tribes agree on the subject.

“I think it’s important when (Franz) makes the statement that DNR and tribes are supportive, she can’t aggregate tribes,” Allen said. “She can’t make that statement, because not all of us agree.”

Allen said the tribe was in consultation with Cooke about potential solutions but noted that fewer pens made farms less economically viable.

Representatives for Cooke declined to comment, but earlier in the week released a statement calling the decision not to renew the company’s leases, “disappointing.”

The statement also cited a March 2022 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which said that proposed marine finfish aquaculture in Puget Sound created little or no impact on native species.

The study concluded that the proposed aquaculture is not likely to jeopardize the existence of chinook salmon, steelhead, Hood Canal summer-run chum and Georgia Basin yelloweye rockfish.

“Further, we conclude that the proposed action is not likely to result in the destruction or adverse modification of the designated critical habitats for any of the listed species,” the report says.

In October, 10 state lawmakers sent Franz a letter requesting DNR extend Cooke’s leases in Puget Sound and approve the lease for the Port Angeles project.

District 24, Position 1 Rep. Mike Chapman was one of only two Democrats to sign the letter.

He said last week that he is willing to work with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe to find a way to make the project work.

In response to Franz’s announcement that DNR would no longer allow net pen aquaculture in state-owned waters, Chapman said that was not the intention of the Legislature when it banned the farming of Atlantic salmon.

“It was never our intent to shut down the entire industry,” Chapman said. “My fear was that we would move on to shellfish.”

On Nov. 15, Allen suggested seeking a legislative solution but said it was too soon to say what that might be. Chapman said he was willing to work with the tribe to find a way forward for the project.

During the conference, Franz said net-pen farming created an unacceptable environmental hazard that was threatening an already damaged ecosystem. Franz cited the 2017 Cypress Island net pen collapse where thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon escaped from a facility owned by Cooke, and said the concentration of fish in net pens causes contaminating environmental waste.

Franz said at the conference she had not been in contact with the Jamestown tribe regarding the decision.

DNR did see a lot of opportunity for upland fish farming, Franz said, but emphasized the state’s move away from net pen aquaculture.

“On state lands we will not be continuing with net pens, the establishing of them or the increasing of them,” Franz said.

Franz was joined at the conference by Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman and Emma Helverson, executive director of the environmental group Wild Fish Conservancy.

“We really work hard as a tribe to reverse and prevent the industrialization of Puget Sound,” Forsman said.

“Our people have been working very hard to restore salmon, there are many threats to salmon recovery. We can continue to harvest our resources in a way that we always have.”