State regulators break precedent with OK of Island County net pen ban

Washington’s Department of Ecology is willing to let Island County ban fish farming from its waters, but only temporarily.

Washington’s Department of Ecology is willing to let Island County ban fish farming from its waters, but only temporarily.

In a reversal of position, the Ecology Department said in June that the county’s Shoreline Master Program (SMP) can continue its ban on so-called net pen aquaculture, but added that the prohibition will likely not be permanent.

“We’re not insisting that the word ‘temporary’ be included in the SMP, but we didn’t feel comfortable making a permanent ban,” said David Pater, a shoreline planner with the state agency. “We recognize the uniqueness of Island County’s situation and we recognize the issue will be looked at again.”

The SMP is a plan for managing the county’s shoreline. The state Shoreline Management Act, adopted in 1971, requires cities and counties to create SMPs. Under a 2003 change to the Act, SMPs must be reviewed every eight years. Island County’s SMP hadn’t been reviewed since it was created in 1976, said Brad Johnson, a senior planner for the county.

The review process began in 2010. From the beginning, opposition to net pen aquaculture was strong and uniform, Johnson said.

“People simply did not want to see net pen aquaculture in Island County,” he said. “They were worried about aesthetics and the ecology.”

Not a single comment was received from the fin-fish farming industry, he said.

The Ecology Department “initially took the position that the Shoreline Management Act would require us to allow” net pen aquaculture, Johnson said. After all, the SMP is intended to deal with all water-dependent activities, which certainly includes net pen aquaculture, he acknowledged. The county has had no dispute over any other form of aquaculture, such as growing mussels.

“There was a lot of back-and-forth between the Ecology Department and Island County” in negotiating the temporary ban, Johnson said. “We did a fair amount of research in support of our position and about June 1 got written indication that we could continue prohibiting net pen aquaculture.”

Fish farming can pose the threat of sea-lice infestations that can reach up to 75 kilometers, said Steve Erickson, of Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN). It can produce major amounts of droppings concentrated in small areas and offers the potential for an escape of non-native species.

So some advocates have pushed for a permanent ban.

Using language like “temporary prohibition” or “interim measure” would “leave the county highly vulnerable to a legal challenge from, e.g., the industry,” wrote Erickson in a July 27 letter to Island County commissioners. “For this very basic reason, the words ‘temporary’ or ‘interim’ should not be used.”

The Ecology Department refused a permanent ban because “we have to recognize the issue will be looked at again,” Pater said. “Our intention is for the state to form a committee of all stakeholders to examine the issue more closely over the next couple of years, so we can come up with a more thoughtful approach. We need to gather more information on the industry — it’s still a new industry, and there are only eight or 10 operations in Puget Sound.”

The SMP will be subject to review again in 2020. At that point there may be more interest in fish farming off Whidbey Island, Dan Swecker, executive director of the Washington Fish Growers’ Association, said Thursday.

“We looked really carefully at whether there was current interest, and at the present time no one is expressing an interest in pens in Island County,” he said. “But we will come up with more guidance for counties that they can rely on next time they revisit their SMPs.”


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