JUNE 15, 2022— In the coming weeks, Canada Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray and Washington State’s Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz are both expected to announce major decisions that will determine the future of commercial net pen aquaculture along the Pacific Northwest Coast.
Coincidentally, all leases in Washington State and licenses in British Columbia (B.C.) that authorize commercial net pens to operate in public waters will expire in 2022, with the majority terminating this month. Commissioner Franz and Minister Murray are both independently deciding between pressure from mega seafood corporations to issue new 6-12-year contracts for open water net pen aquaculture, and coastwide calls from Tribal and First Nations, scientists, wild fish and orca advocates, and the public to remove this polluting industry from public waters; with many calling for a transition to land-based, closed containment systems.
“This is a truly historical and pivotal moment for the future of wild salmon recovery in the Northwest. Right now, we have leaders on either side of the border weighing the health and value of our wild salmon and the use and enjoyment of public waters, against the interests and profits of the commercial net pen industry”, says Emma Helverson, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “Together, Commissioner Franz and Minister Murray have an unprecedented opportunity to eliminate a major obstacle impeding the recovery of Pacific salmon that will benefit communities throughout the Pacific Northwest for generations to come.”
In Washington State, global seafood corporation Cooke Aquaculture and Washington-based conservation ecology nonprofit Wild Fish Conservancy have both submitted applications to lease the expiring net pen sites when the existing contracts end.
Commissioner Hilary Franz is now deciding whether to issue new leases for Cooke’s controversial net pen operations or to lease these sites to Wild Fish Conservancy who seeks to implement a large-scale, passive restoration project to ecologically restore 130-acres of Puget Sound and the public’s use and enjoyment of these public waters previously harmed by the industry.
The Conservancy’s challenge by statute requires Commissioner Franz to determine which application is in the best interest of the general public, an unprecedented approach for protecting and restoring public waters.
Earlier this year, a federal analysis found Puget Sound net pens owned by Cooke are harming threatened and endangered wild salmon, steelhead, and other protected fish, as well as their critical habitats. In April, a group of 121 businesses and organizations and over 8,500 individuals delivered a petition to Commissioner Franz supporting this creative restoration proposal and urging her not to extend, renew, or reissue leases to the commercial net pen industry.
In B.C., all but two of the 98 federal aquaculture licenses for salmon farms are set to expire on June 30, 2022, and Minister Murray is expected to decide in the coming days or weeks whether or not to renew these contracts to operate. In April, the Minister issued a statement reconfirming a prior commitment made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2019 to transition away from open water salmon farming in coastal B.C. waters by 2025, sharing in a press statement “work to do so is already underway.”
Canada’s federal government has already begun phasing out commercial net pen facilities throughout the province in coordination with First Nations who have expressed concerns the net pen industry is operating in their traditional waters without their permission, harming wild salmon, and threatening food security. As a result, 13 salmon farms have already been permanently closed. In December 2020, the former Minister of Fisheries announced the federal licenses for 19 salmon farms operating near B.C.’s Discovery Islands would be permanently decommissioned and prohibited the restocking of those farms which are now vacant. A recent Court ruling requires Minister Murray to make a second decision on these licenses when she announces a decision later this month.
“The decision to prohibit stocking of the Discovery Island salmon farms means young wild salmon migrating through the region are free of sea lice for the first time since we began looking at them in 2005. Removing salmon farms is the single greatest relief Fisheries Ocean Canada can provide to wild salmon because the evidence is growing that the level of viruses, bacteria and lice shed by these farms is contributing to the extinction of wild salmon,” says independent scientist and longtime wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton. “Today, we wait to hear if Minister of Fisheries Joyce Murray will open all wild salmon migration routes and reverse the extinction of these remarkable and generous fish by giving the salmon farming industry notice that cheap and dirty net pen salmon farming practices are no longer allowed in British Columbia.”
In 2017, Washington state experienced a catastrophic collapse of a Cooke-owned net pen that released over 260,000 nonnative Atlantic salmon infected by an exotic virus into Puget Sound. In response to this event and widespread outrage from the public and Tribal Nations, Commissioner Franz terminated two of the company’s leases requiring the removal of four net pens.
The same incident triggered the legislature to pass a bipartisan law phasing out all nonnative finfish aquaculture by 2022. Due to a loophole in the law, Cooke avoided the phase out by transitioning to a native species, which state officials acknowledge have the potential to pose an even greater disease and genetic risk to the health of native wild salmon and steelhead.
Washington State and British Columbia are the only remaining jurisdictions on the North Pacific Coast where open water net pens still operate. California, Oregon, and Alaska have already banned or excluded the net pen industry from operating in their state waters in order to protect the health of their native fish and marine ecosystems.
“Every other state along the Pacific Coast has already made the decision to exclude this harmful practice from their public waters,” says Helverson. “These two leaders have an important opportunity to unite the entire coast and join progressive governments around the world helping to build a new green economy by transitioning the finfish aquaculture industry from polluting public waters to safe and sustainable land-based closed-containment systems.”