When Washington state Sen. Kevin Ranker tried about a decade ago to roll back open net-pen farming along the coast there, he couldn’t find a sponsor for a bill, let alone shepherd it to the governor’s desk for a signature.
What a difference the escape of hundreds of thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon makes. After as many as 263,000 of the fish spilled into the Salish Sea when their net pen collapsed at one of Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s salmon farms in August, legislation phasing out Atlantic net-pen farming by 2025 passed both the House and Senate by March 2. The bill was delivered to Gov. Jay Inslee on March 8, and while opponents are urging him to veto the measure, he’s not expected to.
Still, the drama has sparked a new kind of fish war in Washington state, with opposing sides enlisting scientists, lobbyists, and environmentalists in the fight. If Inslee signs the bill, thus outlawing the remaining 10 such fish farms still in operation off his state’s coast, it would put an end to the practice along the entirety of the U.S. West Coast, including Alaska. British Columbia, where more than 100 fish farms dot the coast, would become the last place to allow the practice, and pressure is even mounting there against it.
Tribes throughout the region have long been concerned about Atlantic salmon endangering the native fish. In October, Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, criticized Washington state’s permitting requirements, oversight, and response planning for Atlantic salmon open net pen farming.
“We believe Atlantic salmon should be treated like all invasive species,” she wrote in a commission publication.
Ranker, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill that passed this month, echoed those concerns, saying Atlantic salmon accidentally released from the farm could compete for food and habitat, or spread disease. And even when they’re in the net, he added, their food pellets and feces are concentrated there. As the state spends billions trying to recover wild salmon, an icon of the Pacific Northwest, it’s “absolutely ludicrous” to hobble those efforts by introducing an invasive species to the ecosystem, he says.
“Net-pen finfish aquaculture, across the board, is detrimental to the environment and should be disallowed,” he said. His legislation still allows rearing native salmon in net pens, but Atlantic salmon farmers will have to raise the fish in facilities away from the ocean. On a recent trip to Scotland, Ranker visited upland finfish aquaculture sites where salmon are raised in freshwater. In 2015, according to Scottish Natural Heritage, the country produced more than 170,000 tons of salmon.
“Finfish aquaculture is critical for world hunger and for protein needs of humanity world wide,” Ranker said. “We need aquaculture. But we need it in a sustainable and environmentally safe manner.”
The importance of fish farming in at least some capacity is a point the Democratic lawmaker and Cooke agree on. Joel Richardson, vice president of public relations for the company that has worked in Washington for three decades, cited a global population expected to exceed nine billion people by 2050 as proof salmon farming is critical to affordably feed the world. And as technology improves, he said, so will aquaculture’s sustainability.
“It only takes one kilogram of feed to produce one kilogram of salmon, compared to the 2:1 ratio for chicken or 10:1 for beef,” he said in an email. “Fish feed production generates three times fewer greenhouse gases than pig feed and six times less than cattle. Farming Atlantic salmon locally significantly reduces our carbon footprint.”
He disagrees with a state investigation that concluded the summer salmon escape was caused by Cooke’s negligence. The multi-agency report found that Cooke Aquaculture failed to adequately maintain its nets, which were burdened tons of mussels and debris.
Richardson also disputes other charges Ranker and supporters of his legislation have made about the industry. Concerns about interbreeding are unfounded, Richardson said, scientists have found no evidence of Atlantic salmon spawning on the West Coast of North America and studies have shown that pen-reared salmon haven’t learned how to hunt for food because they’re used to being fed on a timetable. The escaped salmon that were recovered were found with empty bellies, he added.
Cooke spent $72,000 on at least six lobbyists in a campaign against the bill, The Seattle Times reported. But a series of amendments that could have killed the legislation before the end of the legislative session were defeated and senators, who voted 31-16 in favor of the measure, weren’t swayed by an open letter signed by fisheries scientists alarmed that lawmakers didn’t understand the consequences of killing Atlantic salmon farming.
Dan Swecker, executive director of the Washington Fish Growers Association, said possible impacts on Pacific salmon are “red herrings” but that the collapsed net pens created an ideal public relations opportunity to attack Atlantic salmon farming.
Indeed, the incident drew international media attention, and even Ranker agrees the political will wouldn’t be there without it. “Crisis creates community,” he said. He pushed back against allegations that concerns about Atlantic salmon are misguided, though.
“We have documented evidence of colonized watersheds in British Columbia, the UK, and elsewhere around the globe,” he said. “We also know that they have been found with juvenile wild salmon in their bellies, and we also know they transfer disease.”
Wild Pacific salmon, meanwhile, have been in their own perpetual crisis, facing poaching, habitat destruction, dams, overharvest, and climate change. A recent study by the University of Washington found that some populations of Chinook salmon—the biggest of the wild Pacific salmon—are returning to their home streams to spawn smaller and younger than in previous years. Large Chinook are valuable to fisheries but also predators like killer whales, and they provide added nutrients to the marine environment. If the declining salmon size isn’t offset by more fish, that means Chinook productivity is declining, said Jan Ohlberger, lead author of the study and a research scientist at UW. And that raises questions about the species’ resilience.
This year, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission is expecting another low salmon return thanks to drought, poor ocean conditions, and loss of habitat. Plus, according to the commission, NOAA Fisheries may require fishery restrictions to help recover the declining resident orca populations that rely on Chinook salmon for sustenance.
“Salmon are kind of like the death by a thousand cuts,” said Brian Burke, a biologist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Historically, the four Hs—hatcheries, hydropower, harvesting, and habitat—have come under fire for threatening wild salmon, with proponents of each blaming the other.
“Everybody can point to somebody else and say they’re the ones impacting salmon,” Burke said. “It’s easy to point at other reasons. The fact is that all these reasons are probably having an impact.”
Ciara O’Rourke is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.