Steelhead farms seen as new can of worms

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife recently granted a fish-farming company permission to raise steelhead in several net pens in Puget Sound, including one not far from Whidbey Island.

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific plans to transition its pens from Atlantic salmon to all-female, mostly sterile species of the sea-going rainbow trout, according to the state.

Hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon escaped a pen near Anacortes in 2017, spurring state lawmakers to phase out farming of such nonnative fish from state waters.

Over the last week, conservation groups expressed concern with the new permits for steelhead farming. Opponents have raised concerns about pollution from the crowded pens and the spread of disease and genetic problems to wild species.

Five years ago, the state Department of Ecology approved — on a temporary basis — Island County’s unique ban on fish farming.

Cooke’s northernmost fish farm, however, is at Hope Island in Skagit County, which is close to Deception Pass and Whidbey Island.

Whidbey Environmental Action Network supported Island County’s ban on net pens when Atlantic salmon was the preferred species, and the switch to steelhead didn’t change that.

“Bottom line: It was a bad idea when they farmed Atlantic salmon; it’s a bad idea to farm steelhead,” Marianne Edain said in an email.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, said the group will challenge the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “reckless decision” to issue the permits.

“Unfortunately WDFW chose to ignore the concerns of thousands of public comments including five Puget Sound tribes and the overwhelming scientific evidence, by refusing to require a comprehensive environmental assessment (EIS) before approving this action,” he said in a press release.

Last fall, Cooke Aquaculture and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe announced the joint venture to raise steelhead, as well as sablefish.

“The two partners are working together to sustainably rear Northwest native species which will require investment in new equipment and technology while supporting local jobs,” a Cooke Aquaculture press release states.

According to Fish and Wildlife, Cooke will be required to have an escape prevention and response plan, submit to twice-a-year net-pen inspections by a marine engineering firm, immediately report escaped fish, test for diseases before stocking net pens with smolts, provide annual fish health reports and allow the agency to sample tissue and perform genetic analysis of breeding fish.

The company faces additional regulatory steps before steelhead farming can begin. The Wild Steelhead Coalition is calling on state leaders to deny Cooke leases that would be necessary to begin.

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