By Megan Plog
In August, an estimated 300,000 Atlantic salmon were released from a Cooke Aquaculture net pen that failed. Net pens are exactly what they sound like – nets filled with farmed fish. They are a cheaper alternative to land-based aquaculture or closed systems, because they do not need to be regularly cleaned. Net pens allow for free transfer of water through the system, and therefore free transfer of waste, pollutants, parasites, chemicals, and disease.
Net pens are legal in the State of Washington and are regulated by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. After the failure of the Cooke Aquaculture pen, Governor Jay Inslee was able to put a temporary ban on new permits for net pens, but did not have the resources necessary to sustain that ban. Cooke Aquaculture is already planning to introduce 1 million new Atlantic salmon into a net pen in our Puget Sound even though the investigation into the past pen failure isn’t even completed.
Washingtonians have a deep connection to our waterways and our fish, and an appreciation for all things “green”. As such, there is a big lawsuit being filed against Cooke Aquaculture under the Clean Water Act by Duvall-based Wild Fish Conservancy. Their argument is that these farmed Atlantic salmon, and net pens in general, are considered pollutants under the Clean Water Act. If this lawsuit is successful, it could have serious implications for the future of fish farming in Puget Sound.
Cooke Aquaculture is also receiving backlash from tribes after an attempt to bribe them into silence about the number of Atlantic salmon they are catching after the spill and to not speak out against open net pens. Under the Boldt Decision, tribes are allowed 50 percent of the annual catch within Puget Sound, which is typically Pacific salmon. Atlantic salmon are considered an invasive species and have the ability to out-compete native (Pacific salmon), thereby denying tribes their treaty rights, which could be a possible legal route to pursue for another lawsuit.
These net pens have been a growing problem for some time now, and while the escape of 300,000 Atlantic salmon into the Sound is devastating, the drama provides a unique time where imposing stricter regulations on fish farming companies is possible. It has also galvanized Washingtonians and British Columbians alike to be better stewards of their waters. The dialogue surrounding the justice (or injustice) surrounding farmed salmon, tribal rights, and ecological health of the Puget Sound is an important one. The impacts of this particular net failure may soon fade from the news cycle, but the disaster will hopefully have lasting impacts on policy and decision making in our region.