Guest opinion: Fish farm ban comes after years of political wrangling

Not long ago, some of the loudest political voices railing against the danger of farming Atlantic salmon in the waters of Puget Sound came from within chambers of county governments.

Back in 2012, leaders of Island, Whatcom, Jefferson, Skagit and San Juan counties — Democrat and Republican — called for a moratorium on such fish farm operation. They also sought authority to include a ban on them in their respective shoreline management plans.

They reached out to executives in state agencies as well as former governor Chris Gregoire and later Gov. Jay Inslee. They lobbied lawmakers and sought backing of tribes in their quest.

“While Washington State missteps with outdated science, local governments desiring to recognize modern science, job, and environmental and public threats, ask that they be permitted to ban these open finfish feedlots before they destroy the native species, their habitats, and the jobs we have worked so diligently to protect,” former Island County Commissioner Angie Homola wrote in a six-page issue paper delivered to Inslee in August 2014.

A ban should be in place “at least until appropriate locations and methods for the safe installation, management, enforcement, and mitigation in the event of disease or pathogen outbreaks, or accidental release has been established,” she wrote.

The effort was futile, recalled Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Association of Counties.

“The Department of Ecology refused to acknowledge that counties were correct in their desire to ban Atlantic Salmon Net Pens because they were a necessity to foster water dependent activities, therefore allowed under the Shoreline Management Act,” he wrote in a blog on the group’s website in August.

His post went up after a catastrophic net-pen failure off Cypress Island, allowing the release of up to 260,000 nonnative salmon.

It brought a swift response from state government and caused a sea change in attitude toward such operations.

Inslee issued a moratorium on processing of any new or pending permits. Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz — who arrived a year ago and was not around when counties clamored for action — has terminated the lease of one of eight fish farms run by Cooke Aquaculture. More terminations are likely.

State lawmakers, who rejected a bill in 2013 to empower counties to ban fish farms, are pushing legislation to bar the state from renewing any leases once the current expire. Tribal governments are on board for shuttering operations too.

On Tuesday, Jan. 30, the state departments of ecology, natural resources, and fish and wildlife released their investigation of the cause of the net-pen failure and it pinned it on Cooke.

In the course of a news conference, Franz didn’t sound like she foresees a long future for the industry in Washington. “There is a serious question whether it is in the state’s best interest,” she told reporters.

With this rising tide of political opposition threatening to put them out of business as soon as legally possible, executives of Cooke Aquaculture probably should be devising an exit strategy.

They could wage a protracted legal battle to survive — the firm is fighting Franz’s lease termination decision — at a high cost.

Or they could start the conversation with Inslee and the Democrat-controlled Legislature to ensure adequate financial aid and job training for their employees in the future. And Cooke officials could quietly test the waters on the state’s interest in buying out a couple leases to expedite their departure.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest, has spent many years striving to use science to change state planning policies. He recalled how the requests of counties fell on deaf ears. It’s been tough building opposition, until last year’s net-pen collapse.

“It’s amazing. In 28 years, I’ve never worked on an issue with as broad public response as getting rid of these pens,” he said.

“I’m glad it’s finally happening,” he said. “The right thing for our Puget Sound and for our salmon and for our children’s future will be to not have these net pens.”

Reach Hearld (Everett) columnist Jerry Cornfield at 360-352-8623, jcornfield@herald net.com or on Twitter, @dospueblos.

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