Last year, Washington officials ended commercial fish farming in state waters — in the long wake of a massive spill of nonnative Atlantic salmon into the Salish Sea, the inland marine waters of Washington and British Columbia, in 2017.
Now fish farming could make a comeback, marking a new era of aquaculture on state lands.
The state Department of Natural Resources this week signed an agreement with Sustainable Blue, a Nova Scotian Atlantic salmon farming company, to identify state lands that could support a fish-farming facility and to eventually negotiate a lease.
“We believe in entering into this agreement, we are testing those people who said it wasn’t possible or that it won’t work, the costs are too high or that it by itself will have environmental impacts that are not being considered,” Hilary Franz, state commissioner of public lands, said in an interview.
The agreement is not binding.
Last fall, Franz inked an executive order effectively ending commercial net-pen fish farming in state waters. The decision came shortly after the Department of Natural Resources terminated Cooke Aquaculture’s remaining net-pen leases. The Canadian company purchased all of Washington’s net-pen facilities in 2016.
Six years ago, an estimated 260,000 Atlantic salmon were released in the net-pen collapse at Cooke’s Cypress Island farm.
When Franz signed the executive order, net-pen fish farming had already been outlawed in California, Oregon and Alaska.
The Nova Scotian company raises Atlantic salmon in a process that attempts to mirror their life cycle in the wild. Eggs are incubated in fresh water, where young fry will begin to hatch. They’re put into tanks, where they will learn to swim against the current, and get big enough to be moved to saltwater tanks to grow into adults.
Once they’re 10 to 14 pounds, they’re harvested for retail sale.
Farmed Atlantic salmon can carry viruses, bacteria and parasites like sea lice that can infect wild salmon. Conventional net-pen fish farms typically use antibiotics to treat bacteria that cause lesions and hemorrhaging in infected fish. Kirk Havercroft, CEO of Sustainable Blue, said this is not the case in the company’s tanks.
In net pens, fish feces sink and can harm the seafloor environment. In Sustainable Blue’s tanks, that waste is extracted and trucked to anaerobic digesters just up the road to produce methane gas for electricity generation.
In Nova Scotia, Sustainable Blue draws water from the ocean. The water is sterilized before it is used in the farm. A Washington facility would likely be located in an urban setting, where the water would be drawn from the tap and mixed with sea salts.
The water in the tanks is flushed about every 14 minutes, Havercroft said. That wastewater goes through the company’s filtration system, the waste is extracted and the majority of the water goes back into the tanks.
There’s a trade-off in cost between conventional net-pen fish farming and Sustainable Blue’s tanks. Where net-pen farmers may spend on medicine to keep disease down, farmers on land have to pay for utilities to keep the facility running. That is what made Washington’s cheap electricity attractive, Havercroft said.
If all goes as planned, one of these facilities could be coming to DNR industrial lands in the Tri-Cities, or along the I-5 corridor, Franz said, where there’s no risk of a nonnative fish spill that could affect wild populations.
That was the concern after Cooke’s net-pen failure.
“Our health and well-being is undeniably bound to the health and well-being of the native salmon stocks — it’s our culture. It’s our way of life,” Lummi Nation Chair Tony Hillaire said in a 2022 interview. “As you can imagine for many, many people with culture and values, when there’s any threat to it, our hearts and minds are consumed by the uncertainty of what’s happening.”
Some of the nonnative fish migrated up area rivers, including the Skagit, and research later revealed a virus that had been found in farmed Atlantic salmon from an Iceland hatchery was found in sampled fish that escaped the Cypress Island pens.
Later investigations by the state revealed other facilities operated by Cooke were not in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations or industry standards.
The state Legislature in 2018 passed a law phasing out net-pen farming of exotic species in Washington waters. Cooke then pivoted to raise steelhead — a fish native to the region.
Cooke declined to comment on the inland fish farm proposal. Joel Richardson, a spokesperson for Cooke, said a mix of land- and marine-based fish farming will continue to be part of the company’s future. He said studies have shown little to no environmental impact from finfish aquaculture in Puget Sound.
People started farming Atlantic salmon in Washington in 1982, and in British Columbia in 1985. Wherever there are fish farmed in sea pens there are escapes, Joe Gaydos, science director of the SeaDoc Society, wrote to state lawmakers in 2017.
More than 10,000 Atlantic salmon were caught in the North Pacific between 1987 and 1996.
In 1998, scientists captured 12 juvenile Atlantic salmon in the Tsitika River on Vancouver Island. Genetic analysis confirmed that these were Atlantic salmon that were the products of natural spawning by Atlantic salmon that had escaped fish farms.
In 2018, the World Resources Institute released a report that said the aquaculture industry needs to to meet the food supply demands of billions of people.
In Washington, the money from land leases for fish farming could go to schools and counties for things like housing, emergency services and education, Franz said.