Washington forced shutdown follows bans in California, Oregon, & Alaska
OLYMPIA, Washington––Sea pen fish farming––if Cooke Aquaculture complies with a November 18, 2022 order from Washington state public lands commissioner Hilary Franz––is within two weeks of abolition along the entire west coast of the United States.
The Franz order, unfortunately, may not be a win for either animal rights or animal welfare, nor even an advance against human consumption of fish.
The salmon formerly produced in west coast sea pens are likely to be replaced in supermarkets by additional salmon produced elsewhere, including in tanks on dry land. Those salmon will enjoy no more quality of life, and their lives in close confinement will be even less natural than were the lives of the sea pen-reared salmon.
Big plus for environment & wild salmon
But ending sea pen salmon farming will be a big plus for the Puget Sound environment and for wild salmon, long plagued by fish parasites––especially sea lice––caught from their farmed cousins.
The Franz order came shortly after the state of Washington terminated the last two Cooke Aquaculture sea pen site leases on Puget Sound, in Rich Passage near Bainbridge Island and near Hope Island in Skagit Bay.
All fish farming activity at both sites is to be completed, and removing the sea pens is to be underway, by December 14, 2022.
Meeting the deadline, Cooke Aquaculture complained to Seattle-area media, would compel the company to kill 332,000 juvenile steelhead who were hatched to restock the Rich Passage and Hope Island sea pens in 2023.
But Cooke Aquaculture gambled bigtime in hatching the steelhead in the first place, since a five-year phase-out of sea pen salmon farming had been ordered by the state legislature in 2018.
The legislature had, however, conditionally allowed Cooke Aquaculture to continue to produce steelhead, a close relative to salmon, during the phase-out interval.
While Cooke Aquaculture is expected to comply with the Franz order at Rich Passage and Hope Island, “A joint-venture project between the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and Cooke Aquaculture to establish a new net pen steelhead farm in Port Angeles, Washington, is still alive,” the industry news web site IntraFish reported on November 23, 2022.
That project would recycle some of the facilities at a former Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm.
The Cooke Aquaculture salmon facilities, like most others around the world, farmed Atlantic salmon, larger than wild-run Pacific salmon and therefore more profitable to produce.
California, Oregon, and Alaska long since outlawed sea pen aquaculture as a potential threat to native salmon––Alaska in 1990, not long after sea pen salmon farming started in Washington.
British Columbia, the Canadian province just to the north, with which Washington shares the Salish Sea, consisting of Puget Sound and the Georgia Strait, intends to prohibit sea pen aquaculture in coastal waters by 2025.
“No way to safely farm fish in open sea net pens”
Explained Franz, “As we’ve seen too clearly here in Washington, there is no way to safely farm fish in open sea net pens without jeopardizing our struggling native salmon.
“I’m proud to stand with the rest of the West Coast today by saying our waters are far too important to risk for fish farming profits.”
Cooke Aquaculture, founded as Kelly Cove Salmon Inc. in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1985, is now by far the biggest player in the sea pen salmon business, operating in 70 nations.
After acquiring most of the sea pen salmon industry in Scotland in 2014, Cooke Aquaculture in 2016 established a monopoly on sea pen salmon farming in Washington, purchasing several 30-odd-year-old facilities that appeared to be near the end of their ability to withstand the wind and the waves.
The former sea pen site leaseholder, Icicle Seafoods, was reportedly almost bankrupt, unable to invest in repairs and refurbishment.
The great escape
The following year, on August 19, 2017, one of the sea pens acquired by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific collapsed, allowing as many as 260,000 Atlantic salmon to escape into Pacific salmon habitat––100,000 more than Cooke Aquaculture Pacific first acknowledged losing.
Cooke Aquaculture Pacific argued that the Atlantic salmon were sterile and would simply die without threatening native salmon stocks, but the Lummi tribe, headquartered nearby, mobilized to capture tens of thousands of escaped Atlantic salmon before they could intermingle or hybridize with native Pacific salmon.
The great escape exhausted the patience of both houses of the Washington state legislature, Democrats and the majority of Republicans alike.
Salmon farms produce more poop than Seattle
A 1997 study had found that just four of the twelve salmon sea pens then operating 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 was the possibility that hybrids of native Puget Sound salmon and escaped Atlantic salmon would not instinctively return to local spawning streams.
Generating the most anxiety, however, was the risk of escaped pen-reared Atlantic salmon transmitting disease into the wild salmon population.
Shortly before the Washington legislature voted overwhelmingly to end sea pen salmon farming in Puget Sound, the Wild Fish Conservancy on February 15, 2018 released test data which suggested that 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.
This is 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.
Cooke Aquaculture tried to get around the native vs. non-native issue by transitioning to raising native steelhead. That ploy persuaded the Washington legislature for a time, but the abnormally dense concentrations of fish in the sea pens continued to attract disease and fish parasites, and to produce pollution.
Research done in the Fraser River watershed of British Columbia meanwhile demonstrated that young native sockeye salmon appeared to contract fish lice just by swimming past aquaculture sea pens.
The bans now or soon to be in effect along the entire west coast of North America notwithstanding, the World Wildlife Fund has identified salmon farming through sea pen aquaculture as one of the fastest-growing of all food production methods. Sea pen-raised salmon accounts for about 70% of the global salmon market.
With wild salmon runs declining worldwide, many of them declared endangered, the only marketplace competition for sea pen-raised salmon comes from land-based fish farms, which are much more expensive than sea pens to set up and operate, and from synthetic alternatives, such as the Simpligood lookalike, taste-alike, smell-alike smoked salmon substitute made in Israel from algae.