Wild steelhead advocates are calling on two of Washington’s highest elected officials as well as a state agency to block a Canadian company from farming the sea-going trout in Puget Sound pens.
It follows yesterday’s news that WDFW had granted Cooke Aquaculture a five-year permit to rear sterile female steelhead in at least four of its netpens, and possibly as many as seven.
“Given the disease, pollution and other risks associated with open-water fish farms, Endangered Species Act listings in place to protect Puget Sound’s native salmon and steelhead, and Cooke’s clear history of operational failures, we believe this application requires more thorough oversight,” the Wild Steelhead Coalition said in a press release.
WDFW’s approval came after a State Environmental Policy Act review, but the coalition says it should have done an Environmental Impact Statement, which covers projects that are likely to have “significant” impacts on the environment.
“Washington tribes, agencies, non-profits and everyday citizens have worked for decades to clean up Puget Sound, and recover the wild fish, orca whales and priceless marine life that depends on these waters. For our state to continue to permit a Canadian corporation with a tarnished record to operate disaster-prone industrial fish farms in our marine waters would be a massive step backward,” the coalition stated.
In comments submitted last November, the group said there was a “high likelihood” that diseases could spread from the netpens as foraging wild stocks feed on scraps drifting through the mesh.
Fish farming has been a hot topic in the Northwest, especially following the collapse of Cooke’s Cypress Island pens in August 2017 and which led to the escape of some 300,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.
Over 100 tons of mussels and other sea life that weren’t cleaned off the nets allowed them to effectively act as sails in the current and become unmoored, spilling the fish, a state report found.
While the East Coast imports fall under the banner of being an aquatic invasive species, WDFW’s website also states that “the evidence strongly indicates that Atlantic salmon aquaculture poses little risk to native salmon and non-salmon species.”
It says that after considering Cooke’s application, rearing steelhead in the company’s saltwater facilities instead “pose a similarly low” risk.
In that material, WDFW does acknowledge that not all sterile, or triploid, fish are in fact unable to breed and that if a similar accident as Cypress to occur, dozens to around 100 fecund females could be on the loose, though they “would need to migrate into a steelhead spawning river, without homing instincts or cues to enter a specific river, at the correct time of year, dig redds, and attract mates, all of which we assume would have a low probability of occurrence.”
“Therefore, we consider the risk to be low that domesticated all-female, triploid steelhead stocks cultured in Puget Sound net-pens will affect adversely the genetic structure of Washington’s steelhead populations,” WDFW states.
The Wild Steelhead Coalition, which is not to be confused with the highly litigious Wild Fish Conservancy though both groups are against netpens, points to results from 2018’s legislature which banned farming Atlantics and, in their words, “was a clear expression of the people’s desire to prioritize our public waters and native fish over private polluters.”
They say the Department of Natural Resources, as well as its director Hilary Franz, and Governor Jay Inslee should deny Cooke the leases it needs to operate the pens in state waters.
“We also expect the Department of Ecology to thoroughly scrutinize Cooke’s proposal in consideration of pollution impacts,” the coalition adds.
The fish farmers need a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit from DOE and a transport permit from WDFW before any of the steelhead go into any netpens.