Science sidelined in debate over net-pen salmon farming’s future in Washington

Washington’s House Bill 2957 currently sits on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk, awaiting his signature or veto. In the balance of his pen lies the future of the Atlantic salmon aquaculture industry in his state. 

The bill bans new leases to non-native net-pen aquaculture operations and prohibits the renewal of existing leases, resulting in the phasing-out of Atlantic salmon farming in the state of Washington by 2025.

The bill emerged in the wake of an escape of Atlantic salmon from one of Cooke Aquaculture’s net-pens in Puget Sound in August 2017. Inslee has made previous statements revealing his support for the bill, but both Cooke and a group of aquaculture experts, including marine scientists, are urging Inslee to take a longer look at the science behind the issue, which they claim was largely ignored during the debate on the bill in the state Senate and House of Representatives.

“We will continue to reach out to Gov. Inslee over the coming days to urge him to veto HB 2957,” Cooke Aquaculture Spokesman Joel Richardson said in an email to SeafoodSource. “Over the last few months, we have provided Gov. Inslee and all legislators in Washington with evidence-based science from well-respected, credible fishery scientists to inform and educate on sea farming practices.”

The Washington Fish Growers Association, which represents the finfish aquaculture industry, issued its own statement on 5 March, and also called on Inslee to consult with scientists before making his decision.

“We are appealing to Gov. Inslee, a strong believer in science, to use his veto powers to put this nonsensical, punitive legislation to rest,” WFGA Executive Director Dan Swecker said. “The fact is that the science from decades of peer-reviewed research does not support the theory that Atlantic salmon that escape from net pens will colonize our rivers and/or interbreed with native stocks. Indeed, we presented compelling evidence in the legislative committee hearings to the contrary from leading fisheries scientists whose careers included leadership positions at the National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Battelle-PNNL, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Science Center, and the NOAA research laboratory at Manchester, Washington,” Swecker said. 

As the bill was being debated in the state legislature, a group of six aquaculture experts asked that lawmakers more carefully consider scientific knowledge on aquaculture and fish biology before making their decision on the bill. The specialists’ open letter offering their expertise was published on 28 February.

“We call on our esteemed elected representatives to delay any decisions regarding the future of salmon farming in Washington until the scientific community, represented in this state by some of the world’s leading aquaculture and fisheries scientists and researchers in the fields of fish culture, genetics, nutrition, and fish behavior, has had an opportunity to present science in a clear and objective light – rather than in a climate fueled by fear and propaganda,” it said.

The experts said the main arguments used against Atlantic salmon aquaculture – namely, that escaped individuals might interbreed with native salmon species; compete with them for food and habitat; or transmit diseases to them – were all false. 

“While extensive research exists to allay such fears, and while the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has advised the state that they do not agree with the claims of salmon farm opponents, many in the legislature may not have had the benefit of reviewing this extensive peer-reviewed science, given the pressing deadlines of this session,” the letter said. “We would be willing to present in detail, with supporting documentation, such research; and we would be willing to have a full and frank discussion with interested members of the House and Senate about the enormous body of research that exists today.”

Linda A. Chaves, a retired senior advisor on seafood and industry issues and former national aquaculture coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was one of the open letter’s signatories. She said the scientific community has managed to disprove many of the rumors that have shaped this debate.

“I’m concerned that salmon and other finfish aquaculture will be inhibited in this state, without the decision-makers taking a good look at all the science and research that has been done over the past 20 years that shows it’s possible to grow fish responsibly,” she told SeafoodSource.

Several other signers of the letter also formerly held senior positions with NOAA, and NOAA has backed the growth of domestic aquaculture both historically and under the administration of President Donald Trump. However, NOAA itself has not issued a public position on the bill in Washington. Contacted by SeafoodSource, NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs Officer Kate Brogan said, “NOAA stands behind aquaculture as a sustainable fisheries production source to meet growing demand for food in an environmentally safe and healthy way.”

“We recognize that marine aquaculture is vital for supporting our nation’s seafood production, year-round jobs, rebuilding protected species and habitats, and enhancing coastal resilience,” she said. “We remain committed to supporting cutting-edge science and research as well as federal policy making and regulation to grow sustainable aquaculture in the United States and expand its social, economic, and environmental benefits.”

Similarly, the National Fisheries Institute, which represents the U.S. seafood industry, has not had much to say about the bill.

“In October of last year, NOAA announced 32 research grants totaling more than USD 9 million [EUR 7.3 million] for projects around the country intended to help develop the nation’s aquaculture industry,” NFI Vice President of Communications Gavin Gibbons told SeafoodSource in an email. “There remains a need for committed, focused work designed to grow U.S. aquaculture and maximize this important ecological and economic resource.”

The lack of a concerted or coordinated campaign on behalf of aquaculture has hurt the industry as a whole, Chaves said. While Cooke Aquaculture is currently the only company affected by the proposed ban, if enacted, it would impinge not just on Cooke’s operations in Washington, but also any other company wishing to get into Atlantic salmon farming in the state.

“I’m also really concerned that this legislation will lead to a ban on all finfish farming. I know people who are working on farming halibut and black cod; this law could nip that research in the bud,” Chaves said. 

It’s unfortunate that the bill will likely impact the 180 direct jobs tied directly to Atlantic salmon farming in Washington state, and the additional 424 jobs indirectly supported by the sector, Chaves said. The ban will deal a double blow, she said, both to the local economy in Washington and, in a less visible way, to American consumers.

“Aquaculture provides an incredible opportunity to guarantee year-round jobs in Washington; for operating the farms, and support industries including processing,” Chaves said. “And I want people to be able to buy more fresh seafood in the market on a regular basis; I don’t care if it’s farmed or if it’s wild. Having farmed salmon available 12 months out of the year allows it to be consumed more, and makes it available in parts of the country where it was never consumed in before, which is good for public health.”

Chaves said she was surprised and disappointed to learn that some fishing companies in Washington had lobbied in favor of the bill. 

“Instead of fighting for a slice of the salmon market pie, everyone should be working together to grow the size of the pie,” she said.

Opponents of Atlantic salmon aquaculture succeeded in turning what should have been an effort to sort out more effective regulations on the salmon farming industry into an opportunity to eliminate the practice altogether, Chaves said. 

“For a long time, there has been a very, very vocal opposition to salmon aquaculture in Washington. There’s been so much anti-aquaculture sentiment building up over the years that I think a lot of these elected officials who voted for this bill did not take the time to really study the science. If they had, I think they wouldn’t have used this sledgehammer on a problem that could have been resolved in other ways,” Chaves said. “But unfortunately, good science doesn’t make as good a story as the boogeyman.”


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