Aquaculture North America

Viewpoint: Washington State got it wrong

December 15, 2022
By Jeanne McKnight, Northwest Aquaculture Alliance

(Photo: © Andrey Armyagov / Adobe Stock)

What just happened?” 

That’s the question that the seafood community was asking this past Nov. 18, when the Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, convened an audience of ardent supporters from the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) and the media, declaring triumphantly that, “Washington’s public aquatic lands will no longer be home to commercial finfish aquaculture.” 

Giving Cooke Aquaculture Pacific just under a month to harvest half a million steelhead and dismantle its net pens from Hope Island and Rich Passage, not to mention slaughtering 332,000 juvenile fish, the commissioner declared that she was banning commercial net pen aquaculture in state-owned aquatic lands. Forever.

The Northwest Aquaculture Alliance immediately challenged Commissioner Franz and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to produce the science upon which she made this unilateral decision to wipe out the last remaining commercial marine fish farms in a state well-suited for marine aquaculture. Our message to the commissioner: “You got it wrong!”

On Dec. 7, an ad hoc coalition of distinguished fisheries scientists and national and state-run trade associations presented a demand letter to Commissioner Franz and other state officials, seeking an independent review of the science behind the net pen decision. 

We wonder if Commissioner Franz is aware of the fact that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAAA), in releasing its Five-Year Strategic Plan for Aquaculture, has declared that “Marine aquaculture builds seafood supply, supports commercial fisheries, restores habitat and at-risk species, and maintains economic activity in every coastal state.”

We question the motives of an agency head who chooses to ignore the recommendation of a delegation of Washington legislators, who just two weeks prior the announcement of the lease cancellations for Cooke’s two remaining steelhead farms, sent Commissioner Franz a letter urging her to renew the net pen leases, as well as to approve a pending lease application for Salish Fish, a joint venture between Cooke and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. Salish Fish announced plans to develop a steelhead farm off Port Angeles to replace one of the former Cooke operations. 

In the letter, the lawmakers discuss their findings from a late summer visit to Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s Hope Island site, stating that they view net pen aquaculture as “a modern and sustainable industry, utilizing state-of-the-art technology, which allows for the comprehensive monitoring of each farm’s environmental conditions.” 

“We understand and appreciate the difficult challenges and management decisions that come with your job, but you should be confident in that your decision to extend these aquatic leases is backed by extensive scientific review and is supported by agencies and experts at the state and federal level,” the legislators concluded.

But science matters little when politics are involved.While some speculate that Commissioner Franz has her sights set on the Governor’s mansion in 2024, more than a few political observers have suggested that Franz’s decision had less to do with science and more to do with the science fiction that the litigation-loving WFC uses to fundraise. 

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For those not familiar, the WFC is a radical environmental activist organization known less for its salmon conservation efforts and more for suing the likes of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Alaska Trollers Association, and Cooke Aquaculture—to name just a few of its popular targets.  

While only Commissioner Franz and her close advisors know what prompted her to pull the plug on one of the most climate-friendly, efficient means of growing nutritious food, it appears she has disregarded Washington’s 2018 law allowing for the farming of native species.

As Cooke wrote in a recent statement about the DNR decision, “Washington State has been a leader in developing and implementing permit requirements for fish farms. Over the past five years, Cooke has worked cooperatively with regulators, including DNR, to implement independent engineering review of its facilities, enhanced monitoring of water and sediment quality, and increased transparency regarding its operations. All these requirements that have been implemented at Cooke’s farms in Washington show the lack of impact to the environment of its operations.”

Not surprisingly, Cooke was challenged almost every step of the way as it made the transition to farming steelhead trout. 

After the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) granted the species-switch permit to Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, a group of activist organizations branding themselves as environmentalists challenged that approval in court. 

However, in a stunning victory for Cooke—and for all marine net pen aquaculture in Washington—in January 2022, a landmark Washington State Supreme Court ruling unanimously rejected the activists’ arguments and upheld the permit WDFW granted to Cooke Aquaculture Pacific for the farming of Pacific Steelhead trout.

Notably, the Court, using best available science, found that farming of steelhead would not have probable, significant adverse impacts on the environment. Furthermore, the Court upheld WDFW’s years of careful analysis and permit conditions, noting that the agency’s granting of the permit would be protective of the environment. 

Yet another significant victory came in the form of a 210-page biological opinion conducted on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding marine finfish aquaculture in Puget Sound, in which NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service found little to no negative impact on native species such as endangered salmon, Orcas, or their habitat. 

Despite these key findings, and indeed, despite some 40 years of peer-reviewed science showing no significant environmental damage caused by commercial marine net pens, the DNR head’s action was made without any analysis or rationale other than that provided within the agency news release. Instead, the DNR Order claims that the removal of Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s two fish farms “will save wild fish and natural habitat.” Given the fact that the two sites DNR plans to close occupy just .0004% of the state’s public aquatic lands, this claim makes no sense.

To blame marine net pens as the “cause” of the decline in wild salmon stocks shows a lack of understanding of the factors contributing to wild salmon population decline: habitat loss, bycatch, municipalities’ releasing untreated pollutants and contaminants into the water, and other factors.

In a final but tragic irony, DNR’s own staff has repeatedly commended Cooke, in both internal and external correspondence, for the strides it had taken in working with DNR, the Washington Department of Ecology and WDFW. 

As Cooke has stated, “The actions by DNR’s leadership are perplexing at best, and punitive at worst. As a Canadian family company investing significantly in Washington State and creating local jobs, this is very disheartening. As a steward of Washington’s lands, DNR is sending a very clear message to others: ‘Do not come to Washington, do not invest here.’” 


Jeanne McKnight has worked in seafood industry advocacy for more than 30 years. She played a key role in helping rebrand the Washington Fish Growers, shaping a new aquaculture advocacy organization, the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance. She enjoys farmed and wild seafood and believes it is important to “Eat Seafood Twice a Week”.


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