Fish farm eyed for Coles Road

Langley may someday be home to a fish farm that rears species of freshwater coho salmon.

Property owners Bob Libolt and Ken Hertz, real estate developers from Whatcom County, are looking into the possibility of setting up a facility, about one to two acres, on a 40-acre tract of undeveloped land off Coles Road.

It’s the same property that had been planned for the large residential development commonly referred to as The Grove.

Libolt said he and Hertz haven’t abandoned plans to build new housing in the area, but are envisioning a mixed use on the property. Building a fish farm, an enterprise Hertz already has experience investing in, may be a good fit.

“We’re exploring possibilities and fish farms have come up as one option,” Libolt said. “We’re still weighing the pros and cons.”

At this point, the idea is simply being looked at, which makes the submission of a building permit a long way off; the area doesn’t even have the appropriate zoning. However, local elected officials hungry to create jobs in a gasping economy have made it clear they are quite receptive to the idea.

“Everybody talks about sustainable development,” Mayor Larry Kwarsick said. “This is a pretty good example.”

“I think it would be terrific,” he said.



Kwarsick, Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Curt Gordon, Libolt and Hertz took a trip to Rochester this past Friday to tour the SweetSpring salmon farm. Hertz is one of SweetSpring’s investors.

Set up on about 15 acres of property, the inland facility raises coho salmon from egg to mature adult. Over the course of six annual harvests, the farm produces a total yearly yield of about 400,000 pounds and employs about 15 people.

The company’s roots go back 40 years when it began raising a seed stock of Pacific coho. Over the course of about 20 generations, the fish have been transitioned from a lifecycle that is about 90 percent in saltwater to one spent solely in freshwater.

According to Per Heggelund, president and founder of SweetSpring, this is an advantage over more traditional Atlantic salmon farms that raise their fish in saltwater pens in otherwise open water.

By keeping their operation to an inclosed freshwater facility, they can fine tune water quality, reducing the chance for disease and virtually eliminate dangerous contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs.

“They are essentially water treatment facilities,” said Heggelund, adding that about 99 percent of the water used is recycled.

Several people on the tour noted that they expected to find a “fishy” smell at the farm and were surprised there was none. The general appearance of facilities varied, from shiny modern machinery in the main warehouse to antiquated concrete fish ponds that wept water from old cracks.

The company’s freshwater methods recently earned farmed coho — SweetSpring is the only farm to do it — a “Super Green” ranking from Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood. Low impact feeding, adherence to best management and regulatory practices, no detrimental habitat impacts and the elimination of escapement or disease transfer to wild stocks were also factors.

Heggelund is proud of the ranking. Not only did it take several years to earn, but it’s important for the company because it helps differentiate them from traditional salmon farming and its many linked problems.

While the company also has two facilities in Montana and another is being developed in Shelton, the Rochester farm is its primary operation.

A farm set up in Langley would be miniature by comparison, producing a yield of 100,000 pounds and employing between five and 10 workers. But, it could be grown if needed.

“We can add on to that as the market develops,” Heggelund said.

The farm would largely act as a community business, producing locally raised fish and serving a market within a radius of 100 miles, he said.

Future hurdles

Whether such a business would thrive in South Whidbey or not remains to be seen. However, a lot of stars will have to align before it can even be put to the test.

Not only will Libolt, Hertz and SweetSpring all need to agree to move forward, but the city will also need to be on board as the area will need to be rezoned. That can be a lengthy public process, which ultimately ends with a City Council vote.

Even if a fish farm didn’t pan out, some council members are eager to look in that direction. Councilman Hal Seligson, who triumphed job creation and economic diversification as a top priority during his bid for re-election last year, is eagerly supporting the creation of a light industrial zone.

“It’s essential for the city to expand its economic base,” Seligson said.

While he has no visions of belching smokestacks anywhere in the city, he does see the potential for other job-centric and economy-boosting businesses, ranging from commercial call centers to a fish farm.

“I know it can be done in a responsible way that is suitable for our community,” Seligson said.

As part of his urging, the issue has been forwarded to the Langley Planning Advisory Board for review. Initially, the group’s busy agenda was going to delay consideration until next year but Kwarsick is planning to expedite the process.

Kwarsick said he left the tour particularly impressed with the “green-ness” of the operation. This is an opportunity to bring jobs to the community through a sustainability-minded business, making it a top priority, he said.

“We need to clear the plate of the PAB and get this on the agenda as soon as possible,” Kwarsick said.

Port Commissioner Gordon also likes the idea and is eager for the port district to be a partner. Government has a responsibility to help businesses succeed and should work to foster development and growth, he said. This is a chance to do it in a clean, sustainable way.

“It doesn’t have to be dirty,” Gordon said. “This is a perfect example of that.”

If things indeed work out and plans for a SweetSpring fish farm are pursued, Libolt said the planning process and construction of a facility would take up to two years to complete. This is a new idea and there is still a lot time for discussion, he said.

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