Five-year phase-out of Atlantic salmon farming mandated by law
OLYMPIA, Washington––What is in it for the fish?
That is a question hardly anyone is asking, or is likely to ask, as Washington state embarks upon a legislatively mandated five-year phase-out of the sea pen-raised Atlantic salmon industry in Puget Sound.
The phase-out bill was introduced by Kristine Lytton, a Democrat representing Fidalgo Island and the city of Anacortes, near where a Cooke Aquaculture Pacific sea pen collapsed on August 19, 2017, allowing as many as 162,000 Atlantic salmon to escape into Pacific salmon habitat.
Bill flew through to passage
Whether the escape in any way harmed the struggling native Puget Sound salmon runs is unknown, but it appears to have become the finale for the long controversial Atlantic salmon sea pen industry. The Lytton bill flew through the lower house of the Washington state legislature by a vote of 67-31, then cleared the state senate by a margin of 31-16, despite dozens of last-ditch attempts by pro-sea pen senators to introduce disabling amendments.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill into law on March 22, 2018.
The attempted phase-out of the sea pen Atlantic salmon industry is now likely to begin with several years of litigation as Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, owner of the two Atlantic salmon sea pens still operating, strives to stay in business where the industry began.
The remaining Cooke Aquaculture Pacific sea pens hold licenses to operate that expire in 2022. The licenses to operate the sea pen complex from which the salmon escaped, and another that subsequently failed a safety inspection, were cancelled in late 2017.
“The legislation would end state leases and permits for operations that grow nonnative finfish in state waters when current leases expire,” Associated Press summarized.
“Targets Cooke Aquaculture Pacific”
“It targets Canada’s Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, the largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon in the U.S.,” Associated Press observed.
Targeting Cooke Aquaculture Pacific as narrowly as the Washington state law does, vice president Joel Richardson told the seafood trade industry publication Undercurrent News in February 2018, might make the legislation vulnerable to appeal as an alleged violation of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)––which U.S. president Donald Trump has announced his intention of overhauling with a new version he hopes to introduce as early as mid-April 2018.
The Trump version is unlikely to favor the environmental considerations that are the leading Washington state government rationale for the Atlantic salmon sea pen industry phase-out. According to Trump and Trump spokespersons, the pending NAFTA are meant to keep jobs in the U.S., which could favor Cooke Aquaculture Pacific.
Relatively few U.S. jobs
But while Cooke Aquaculture Pacific employs about 6,000 people in six nations worldwide, barely 80 of those people work full-time on Puget Sound.
The $8.5-million-a-year Cooke Aquaculture Pacific payroll in Washington state also includes “an additional 100 jobs in its harvest and processing activities and more than 400 indirect jobs associated with its Washington farms,” according to Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda V. Mapes.
“Opponents of salmon farming have frequently sought to disparage Cooke in public testimony and in the press by characterizing the company as a ‘foreign corporation’,” objected Richardson to Undercurrent News. Richardson called the then-pending bill “attempted confiscation of Cooke’s $76 million investment in Washington.”
The Washington’s Department of Natural Resources manages 20 leases for net pen facilities used to raise fish, Richardson pointed out, including ten with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife and three with Native American tribes, who use sea pens to produce Pacific salmon and steelhead trout.
“Solely focused on Cooke”
“Yet DNR’s intense new focus on managing its fish-farming leases is solely focused on Cooke, and the agency has not issued any default or termination notices to any domestic company,” Richardson said.
Richardson complained that language in the new legislation prohibiting “nonnative marine finfish aquaculture” is “simply another way of referring to Cooke,” the only entity in Washington raising a “non-native” fish species.
Specified Richardson, “There is a trade agreement that provides for relief in exactly this type of situation where a foreign company is treated worse than, and is disadvantaged against, its domestic counterparts. If the legislature approves a ban on our operations,” as it did, “Cooke will seek to recover our confiscated investment, plus costs and lost profits, through mandatory arbitration against the state of Washington under Chapter 11 of NAFTA.”
Bought out predecessor
Cooke Aquaculture Pacific acquired the Puget Sound sea pen leases from former leasehold Icicle Seafoods. “With Icicle on the brink of bankruptcy in 2016,” Richardson recounted, “Cooke announced it would purchase all of Icicle’s farms and retain the entirety of its workforce.”
Richardson alleged that the Washington Department of Natural Resources and state legislature have come down much harder on Cooke Aquaculture Pacific for the August 2017 Atlantic salmon escape than on the owners of locally based sea pen operations from which greater numbers of fish escaped years earlier.
“Not one of those incidents resulted in lease termination by DNR or even so much as a single penalty by the state,” Richardson charged, “let alone an attempted ban by the legislature. The only difference between then and now is ownership by Cooke, a foreign investor.”
Finding Cooke Aquaculture Pacific at fault for poor sea pen maintenance leading to the August 2017 sea pen collapse, the Washington Department of Natural Resources in January 2018 fined Cooke $332,000.
“Experiments to raise salmon perfectly pan-sized”
The phase-out of the sea pen-reared Atlantic salmon industry on Puget Sound will apparently mean the end of Atlantic salmon farming on the U.S. west coast, since Alaska banned salmon farming in 1990 to protect the state’s fishing industry from competition, while Oregon and California have no salmon sea pens.
Ironically, pointed out Seattle Times writer Mapes, “The salmon farming industry in the United States got its start right here in the Puget Sound region in the 1970s with experiments to raise salmon perfectly pan-sized, or just right to fit the slot of a TV dinner. Union Carbide, then Campbell’s Soup, and a string of other entrepreneurs eventually decided docile, domesticated Atlantic salmon fattened up fastest and best in the open-water net pens they were test-piloting in Puget Sound.
“The industry really took off,” Mapes recalled, “when federal fisheries scientists, with more than 1 million jilted Atlantic salmon eggs intended for restocking depleted East Coast streams, instead gave them to private industry.”
“Rent & royalties are small”
While Cooke Aquaculture Pacific and subsidiaries generate annual income of $2.5 billion, Mapes wrote, Washington state “rent and royalties from Cooke are small, totaling just $238,139 in 2016. That didn’t even cover the $460,000 the Department of Natural Resources paid to contract inspectors following Cooke’s Cypress Island collapse to assess the soundness and safety of the rest of Cooke’s pens.
“So weak are the state’s regulatory tools,” Mapes added, “that the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife can by law only test fish at the farms for certain diseases, and even the governor could not stop Cooke last fall from stocking its hatchery with 1.8 million more Atlantic salmon eggs, and moving 1 million more Atlantic salmon into grow-out pens in Puget Sound, even as Cooke’s operations were under state investigation.
Almost as much poop as Seattle
The great salmon escape and subsequent defiance of Governor Inslee followed decades of escalating concern about the environmental impact of salmon farming on Puget Sound, especially after a 1997 study found that just four of the twelve salmon sea pens then operating had together discharged almost the same volume of “suspended solids,” meaning fish excreta, as the amount of suspended solids that entered Puget Sound from the Seattle sewage treatment plant.
Also of rising concern have been the possible effects of hybridization between native Puget Sound salmon and escaped Atlantic salmon, who would not instinctively return to local spawning streams.
Risk of disease
Generating the most anxiety, however, may be the risk of escaped pen-reared Atlantic salmon transmitting disease into the wild salmon population.
The Wild Fish Conservancy on February 15, 2018 released test data which suggests the entire Atlantic salmon population that escaped from the Cooke Aquaculture Pacific sea pen in August 2017 might have been carriers of a Norwegian strain of piscine orthoreovirus, a viral infection which “can cause heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, and affects a salmon’s ability to compete and survive in the wild,” summarized Greg Copeland and Allison Sundell for KING 5 News on February 19, 2018.
Land-based salmon farms are not immune
Two weeks later the salmon farming industry worldwide was jolted when Nova Scotia fisheries minister Keith Colwell announced that 600,000 salmon smolts had been killed to stop the spread of an infectious salmon anemia outbreak discovered at two small land-based aquaculture facilities.
Land-based salmon farming has been promoted as an environmentally safer alternative to raising salmon in sea pens, since land-based facilities are more easily isolated from disease and from wild predators such as otters, seals, sea lions, dolphins, and orca whales.
But land-based catfish farms have proven to be notoriously vulnerable to predation from gulls, cormorants, and even bald eagles.
The arguments for land-based salmon farming are essentially the same as the arguments for factory-farming pigs and chickens in close confinement, instead of in semi-natural conditions.
And this, for people who care about animal suffering, raises again the question of what, if anything, ending sea pen Atlantic salmon farming will mean for the fish?
Wild salmon may be marginally safer from diseases which proliferate and spread faster in the crowded conditions of net farms, but most of the diseases occurring in salmon sea pens are already at large in the natural environmental.
Otters, seals, sea lions, dolphins, and orca whales may be safer if not tempted to try to raid salmon farms, but––unlike around sea pens in British Columbia and off Scotland––this has not been a big issue on Puget Sound.
Sea pen-raised salmon, on the other hand, have semi-natural lives, unlike those raised in land-based facilities, and if the same numbers of salmon are raised and killed for human consumption in one place instead of another, there is no net reduction in animal suffering.
“Fastest-growing food production system in the world”
Observes veteran Alaska environmental journalist Craig Medred, “The 271,000 metric tons of farmed salmon of 1990 is now on the order of 2.4 million metric tons of farmed salmon, according to the World Wildlife Federation, which calls salmon aquaculture ‘the fastest growing food production system in the world.’ Seven out of every 10 salmon sold in the market today comes from a fish farm.”
The U.S. currently imports about 90 percent of its seafood and half of that is farmed, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration publication NOAA Fisheries.
These numbers suggest that the real issue, from either an environmental or animal welfare perspective, is not where fish are farmed––or caught, from wild stocks that are now severely depleted in every part of the world––but rather that people are eating fish at all.