VIEWPOINT | Salmon pens have a place in Island County


Years ago Island County’s Shoreline Master Plan included three “aquaculture parks” in Saratoga Passage. At the time, I worked for a Norwegian-based aquaculture company with fish farming operations worldwide, including Atlantic salmon net pens in Port Angeles Harbor that are still there and have operated successfully since 1985.

I was in charge of new site development, so I submitted applications for salmon pens in each of the three “parks.”

As your March 20 editorial correctly characterizes, “all heck broke loose” as a result. The break out of “all heck” was the product of concerns about aesthetics, competing uses and environmental impacts. The result was a complete ban on salmon net pens in Island County that remains to this day.

I think it is a shame. Not because I’m still in the business. I left it over 20 years ago. Instead, it is because the ban is perpetuated in large part by hysteria-generated editorials, articles and pseudoscientific diatribes about alleged adverse environmental impacts of net pen operations and Atlantic Salmon rearing in the Pacific Northwest.

The facts, as sound scientific research and several decades of practical experience have shown (and cited in an article in your paper on March 14), are that properly sited and properly operated net pens have little if any adverse environmental impacts and can provide significant economic benefits.

By “properly sited” I mean being located where there is sufficient depth and current to prevent build up of waste on the bottom, and sufficient year-around water quality for salmon to survive.

Based on studies I did in the late ’80s, toxic plankton blooms and slow currents in Saratoga Passage preclude successful net pen operation in that area, but there are potentially viable sites on west side of Whidbey Island, despite your bold claim there are none in Island County.

By “properly operated” I mean operated in a manner that maximizes the conversion of feed to flesh (which minimizes waste feed), and minimizes the stress to the fish (which prevents the outbreak of disease that wild salmon pass to farmed salmon, not the other way around). It is also fact that Atlantic salmon escape from pens, but there is no legitimate basis to claim these escapees threaten native salmon populations (Atlantic salmon have been released to Pacific Northwest waters since the early 1900s, and have yet to establish self-sustaining populations). Moreover, it makes good business sense to reduce feed waste, avoid disease outbreaks and minimize escape.

Of course, the issue of whether net pen salmon farming is appropriate anywhere in Island County involves more than just environmental concerns. There are legitimate aesthetic and competing use concerns that must be addressed.

But there are also significant direct benefits from salmon farming operations that should not be ignored. Job creation is an obvious one, and a particularly important one in light of the lack of job opportunities for young adults in Island County.

Tax revenue to the county is another. The collateral benefits to a community from salmon farming are the same as those for any manufacturing or farming business.

Unfortunately, many well-meaning individuals who choose sides in this debate are wooed by provocative claims that multi-national business conglomerates want to swoop in, destroy our “pristine” waters for the sake of a few dollars and leave us poor schmucks with the resulting environmental disaster.

That version of reality may make for good headlines, and seemingly politically correct editorials, but it ignores the facts, flies in the face of real world experience, and prevents reasoned deliberations about the pros and cons of allowing salmon farming in Island County.

I encourage Island County residents to independently and objectively assess what salmon net pens have to offer communities like ours. Be sure to understand the source of the information you consult, and whether it has an agenda that may skew its take on the facts. Personally, I respect the work of government organizations like the Washington State Department of Ecology and the National Marine Fisheries Service, but you may not, so look elsewhere, be critical of everything you read, and make up your own mind rather than accepting what I, the editor of this paper or Whidbey Environmental Action Network claims is the truth.

I am confident after you do so that you will agree that a total ban on salmon net pens in Island County makes as much sense as shooting yourself in the foot.

Chris Gibson lives in Langley.


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