Atlantic Salmon – Counties Asked for Net Pen Ban Five Years Ago

So, it is Sunday morning… and after reading more articles about the environmental catastrophe and the release of thousands of Atlantic Salmon into the waters of Puget Sound, I am drawn to my computer to pen a few words about how Counties identified this as a significant environmental issue over 5 years ago, and how the state environmental agencies and leaders interfered with our efforts to ban Atlantic Salmon Net Pens. This fact has led me to look through emails and documents that jarred my memory and further made me proud of our county leaders… and disappointed that the state rebuffed our efforts.

Starting in 2012, the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC), through the leadership of our Coastal Counties Caucus, desired to place a moratorium on Atlantic Salmon Fish Farms in Puget Sound. Led by Whatcom County through their Shoreline Management Master Plan, and later by then, County Commissioners Phil Johnson (Jefferson County) and Angie Homola Island County, Counties sought an outright ban on Atlantic Salmon Net Pens – fish farms – as we knew they are an ecological disaster waiting to happen.

Counties reached out to Tribes, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Governor’s staff, the Commissioner of Public Lands, and ultimately the Governor. The effort was futile. The Department of Ecology refused to acknowledge that counties were correct in their desire to ban Atlantic Salmon Net Pens because they were a necessity to foster water dependent activities, therefore allowed under the Shoreline Management Act.

The Washington State Association of Counties, the Counties’ Coastal Caucus, several counties and individual County Commissioners worked feverishly to try and bring prudence to this looming catastrophe. Counties in fact asked both the Commissioner of Public Lands and the Governor, based on the precautionary principle, to place a moratorium on all new in water fin fish net pen aquaculture for Atlantic Salmon in the coastal waters of Washington State until there is a plan in place to assure that there is no risk to native salmon runs. We bolstered our request with a wide range of facts including:

  • Both commercial and recreational salmon fisheries are major industries in Washington State;
  • Millions of Federal, State and Local dollars have been spent over the past decade on restoration projects throughout the coastal waters of the state in an effort to restore native salmon stock listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act;
  • Hundreds of citizen volunteers have donated thousands of hours toward the restoration of native salmon runs;
  • The Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) and its Action Agenda were created to expand and enhance that restoration effort;
  • The PSPs’ task is to “ensure” that the Sound will forever be a thriving natural system with clean marine and fresh waters, healthy and abundant native species, natural shoreline and places for public enjoyment and vibrant economy that prospers in productive harmony with a healthy Sound;
  • Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 173-26-201 (3)(E)(iii) requires that County’s Shoreline Master Plans (SMP) “shall achieve no net loss of ecological function and address the cumulative impacts on shoreline ecological function that would result from future shoreline development and uses that are reasonably foreseeable”;
  • All of the environmental challenges to aquaculture listed in NOAA’s Draft Aquaculture Policy (Feb. 2011) are all risks related to the presence of Atlantic Salmon Fish Farms:
  • “nutrient and chemical wastes, water use demands, aquatic animal diseases and invasive species, effects on protected and sensitive marine areas, potential competition and genetic effects on wild species, effect on endangered or protected species, effects on habitat for other species, and use of forage fish for aquaculture feeds”;
  • WAC 173-26-201 (2)(f) states that SMP’s “be designed to achieve overall improvements to ecological functions over time when compared to the status upon adoption”;
  • WAC 173-26-201 (3)(f)(111)(c) States that Shoreline ecological functions in marine waters include “removing excessive nutrients and toxic compounds”;
  • The highly contagious and lethal Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) Virus has been discovered in juvenile Sockeye Smolt in British Columbia.  This virus tested positive for the European strain of ISA and is therefore almost certain to have originated from Atlantic Salmon Fish Farms. No country has gotten rid of the ISA Virus once it arrives;
  • Washington State Environmental Policy Act of 1971 (SEPA) RCW Chapter 43.21c states that “Master Program shall indicate that, where required, mitigation shall be applied in the following sequence of steps in order of priority with (e)(i)(A) of this subsection being top priority (A) avoiding the act altogether by not taking a certain action.”

Ironically, as Whatcom County Council Chair Carl Weimer noted in 2012, Whatcom County was successful in adopting language adopting a ban on Atlantic Salmon Net Pens by passing this language in their Shoreline Management Master Plan:

Commercial salmon net pen facilities shall not be located in Whatcom County waters, except for limited non-profit penned cultivation of wild salmon stocks during a limited portion of their lifecycle to enhance restoration of native stocks when such activities involve minimal supplemental feeding and no use of chemicals or antibiotics.

When Jefferson County and other counties attempted to utilize this identical prohibition, the Department of Ecology said that in retrospect they should not have allowed Whatcom County’s prohibition and would not allow any other County to prohibit Atlantic Salmon net pen operations.

Also in 2012, then Island County Commissioner Homola pleaded with Governor Inslee by writing:

With so much riding on the survival of our wild native salmon species, it’s clear why citizens in Island County sent a resounding message, NO open finfish net pens.  Island County’s concerns are echoed by Whatcom County, Jefferson County, San Juan County, and by the city of Port Townsend. With other coastal jurisdictions, likely to align with similar objections as their SMPs come due.  While Washington State missteps with outdated science, local governments desiring to recognize modern science, job, and environmental and public threats, ask that they be permitted to ban these open finfish feedlots before they destroy the native species, their habitats, and the jobs we have worked so diligently to protect. At least until appropriate locations and methods for the safe installation, management, enforcement, and mitigation in the event of disease or pathogen outbreaks, or accidental release has been established.

Well now, that the proverbial “cow (Atlantic Salmon) is out of the barn (Net Pen)” I read this morning that the state is doing what Counties asked for and advised state agencies and the Governor to do FIVE years ago. I don’t write this as a “we told you so.” I write this as a reminder of what former Tip O’Neil said many years ago, “All Politics are Local” and that many decisions are best made at the local level because more often than not local elected officials have the political will to do what is right, not what is most politically expedient. That is the core of County Government. The government closest to the people.


Eric Johnson has has served as the Executive Director of the Washington Association of Counties (WSAC) since 2008. Johnson, a former Lewis County Commissioner, has more than 25 years of public service at the local and state levels and most recently served as the Association’s Assistant Executive Director before being named as the Executive Director. The Washington State Association of Counties is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that provides its members research assistance, professional training, legislative advocacy, and a forum for discussing matters of common concern to counties. Members include the elected commissioners, executives and council members of Washington’s 39 counties.