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Fish pen authority eludes counties, including Island | Corrected

Fish pens like these are still allowed because a bill that would ban them from Puget Sound was abandoned at the state Legislature.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Fish pens like these are still allowed because a bill that would ban them from Puget Sound was abandoned at the state Legislature.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

A proposed ban on fin-fish net pens is sunk at the state Legislature.

The measure died in committee, as did the hopes of environmental activists and Island County decision-makers.

“That’s the way it goes,” said Steve Erickson, legal coordinator for the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, or WEAN.

Erickson was among those who argued passionately against allowing such farms to operate, particularly those raising Atlantic salmon.

Under the failed measure, counties and cities would have authority to legally ban fin-fish net pens.

The bill was seen by supporters as a speedy and conclusive end to what may yet prove a lengthy and trying battle with the state Department of Ecology over the county’s recent prohibition of non-native, fin-fish net pens.

The ban was included in Island County’s Shoreline Master Program update, which the commissioners approved late last year.

Erickson said he believes pollution generated by the pens and potential for transmitting diseases to native sea life are too great a risk to allow them to operate in any of the waters surrounding Whidbey and Camano islands.

“Anywhere these things are, they are a threat,” Erickson said.

There are currently nine permitted pens in Puget Sound.

One is located in Skagit County near Deception Pass. Owned by Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods, Inc., it’s nestled between Skagit and Hope islands, both of which are state parks. 

Repeated calls to the company’s headquarters were not returned.

Public testimony was so one-sided on the issue that the board agreed to prohibit net-pen aquaculture for all non-native fish.

Final approval of the development rules, however, is in the hands of Ecology officials.

Holding to a long-held position that net pens are a water-dependent use – as opposed to a hotel or retail store – and can not be simply banned outright, department reviewers notified the county in a January written cumulative impacts analysis that the shoreline plan may not pass muster.

"Although citizens may have raised concerns, it's the county's responsibility to determine if the concern has merit," wrote Cedar Bouta, with ecology's shoreline program. "Science does not support the concern."

Studies have shown that the risk of disease transfer is actually greater from native stocks to penned salmon, as "most diseases already exist in the native population," she wrote.

"One unsubstantiated concern is not enough to warrant prohibition of a water-dependent preferred use," Bouta wrote.

The agency is so firm in that position that it’s held up final approval of Jefferson County’s shoreline plan for two years.

Lawmakers from the legislative district and a Jefferson County commissioner were at the forefront of the bill.

According to Josh Weiss, director of policy and legislative relations for the Washington State Association of Counties, representatives of the aquaculture industry attended the session in opposition of the bill and there just wasn’t enough support to vote it out of committee.

The issue was talked about Thursday at the association’s legislative steering committee meeting, but Weiss said there isn’t much hope for any forward movement this year.

“I don’t think there is anything that can be done to resurrect this bill,” Weiss said. “I don’t see it coming back this session.”

Island County Commission Chairwoman Helen Price Johnson said Monday that she isn’t sure what the board’s next steps will be.

All three commissioners signed a letter of support for the bill, but she could not say whether the board will continue to argue the issue or acquiesce to ecology officials.

She personally debates net pens being a water dependent use as there are examples of successful farms on land. Also, Island County isn’t like other communities in Puget Sound, she said, because nearby rivers and estuaries make the area a “nursery” for wild salmon species.

“I think there is a flaw in (ecology’s) thinking… we’re different,” Price Johnson said.

“There are just some things that are better decided at the local level,” she said.

Erickson said he also debates ecology’s position. Fish pens may be a water dependent use but that preference shouldn’t come at the expense of the environment and wild fish stocks.

Should the state agency refuse to approve the shoreline plan with the ban in place, he said he’s hopeful the board will remain firm and appeal the decision to the Growth Management Hearings Board.

Should they board decide otherwise, Erickson said WEAN is prepared to step in.

“If the county won’t, we will,” Erickson said.

An earlier version of this story attributed the wrong Department of Ecology official. The South Whidbey Record regrets the error.

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