Court victory secured, Washington aquaculture opponents turn sights on US Army Corps “letters of permission”

A shellfish farm in Washington State.

The Center for Food Safety scored a victory on 5 October with a court ruling allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revoke its general permit for commercial shellfish operations in Washington state.

However, the Corps’ has issued “letters of permission” to most shellfish operators in the state, and the environmental non-governmental organization is now targeting their rollback as its next task in its stated mission of reducing the environmental impact of commercial aquaculture.

The Center for Food Safety, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, has filed several lawsuits challenging the Corps’ permitting of aquaculture operations, arguing they violate the U.S. Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The suit decided on Thursday, 5 October, was filed in 2021, and releases the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from its Issuance of Nationwide Permit (NMP) 48, which offered near-blanket permission to operate commercial shellfish farming in Washington state. That so-called general permit failed to adequately evaluate cumulative impacts to the environment from the tens of thousands of acres of the 600 clam, oyster, geoduck, and other shellfish farming operations in the state, according to a previous court ruling.

The Center for Food Safety praised the ruling by U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour, calling it a “narrow victory for coastal marine life.”

“Today’s decision is a small step in the right direction, but this fight is far from over,” Center for Food Safety Senior Attorney Amy van Saun said in a press release. “The Corps cannot shift its permitting to non-public permits meant for minimally impactful activities to authorize hundreds of harmful industrial shellfish operations in Washington’s coastal waters. Instead, the Corps must fully analyze the potential adverse and cumulative effects and provide public notice and comment before authorizing industrial shellfish operations in priceless habitat for fish, birds, and whales.”

The U.S. Army Corps has said it will revoke its use of Nationwide Permit 48 in Washington, but the Center for Food Safety alleges the Corps has allowed all commercial aquaculture operations to continue by issuing letters of permission in recent years, and that the letters do not require public notice or comment.

“As alleged in the conservation groups’ pending complaint, these LOPs are meant to be used sparingly, and only when there will be no negative cumulative impact or significant public opposition. Coastal communities affected by industrial shellfish aquaculture have for years asked the Corps to take its duty seriously and prevent destruction of tidal habitats for forage fish, salmon, Dungeness crabs, migratory birds, and orcas,” CFS Attorney Karl G. Anuta said.

Anuta said his organization will “continue to challenge the Corps’ unlawful and destructive actions, including its issuance of letters of permission in Washington state, as part of our ongoing lawsuit against the Corps.”

“Industrial shellfish operations adversely affect Washington's shorelines and estuaries by destroying critical habitat for numerous species, including endangered and threatened salmon and killer whales. These operations harm Washington's aquatic and nearshore areas by increasing plastic netting and debris, microplastics, pesticides, and disturbances in the environment,” Anuta said. “According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, industrial aquaculture’s environmental impacts can include water quality degradation, changes in sediment chemistry and composition, habitat degradation, altered biodiversity and community structure, introduction of non-native species including predators, pests and disease, spread of harmful algal blooms, and the loss of genetic diversity in wild shellfish populations.”

Photo courtesy of Taylor Shellfish


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