VIEWPOINT | What’s wrong with industrial salmon net pens?

A recent “Viewpoint” in the Record presented the “happy face” that the Atlantic salmon net pen industry likes to show.

By Steve Erickson

A recent “Viewpoint” in the Record presented the “happy face” that the Atlantic salmon net pen industry likes to show. Yet the state of Alaska has banned industrial salmon net pens. County commissions of Whatcom, Jefferson and Island County have all banned industrial finfish net pens. Opposition to net pens has come from the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee and a technical group with the Northwest Straits Commission. All Island County commissioners supported prohibiting these floating fish feed lots in the new Shoreline Master Program. Yes, Democrats, Republicans and Tea Partiers all. Usually in disagreement, this has been the one issue where they all agree.

Why? A typical industrial net pen operation will have up to 1 million pounds of non-native Atlantic salmon confined in two acres of pens discharging all of its waste directly into Puget Sound. This is like raising 5,000 pigs on a two-acre floating raft with no waste collection. The fish in 12 net pen operations weigh as much as the human population of Victoria, B.C., our northern neighbor that has been rightly criticized for years for failing to treat its sewage. Net pens are the only type of marine aquaculture that must obtain permits under the federal Clean Water Act. They are not fish “farms” anymore than a cattle feedlot is a “farm.” They are feedlots.

The problems don’t end with the untreated sewage. Keeping tens of thousands of fish in dense confinement produces perfect conditions for breeding disease and parasites that threaten native wild fish. Last spring, net pen operators off of Bainbridge Island had to prematurely “harvest” about 1 million pounds of fish due to an epidemic disease that first afflicted net pens in B.C. And yes, the fish were sold for human consumption.

Besides the immediate threat of disease transmission to wild fish, they serve as incubators for the rapid evolution of novel, more virulent diseases. And parasitic salmon lice on the confined fish are disseminated to wild salmon that pass near the pens, causing serious impacts to migrating salmon runs. Twenty-one of the 23 runs of native salmonids listed under the endangered species act migrate through Island County marine waters. The mouths of the Skagit, Stillaguamish and Snohomish Rivers, with the healthiest remaining salmon runs in Puget Sound, are directly across from Island County. We should not expose our wild fish to the disease and parasites in these industrial fish feedlots.

And then there’s the problem of Atlantic salmon escaping. These non-native fish have now been found in 83 rivers and streams on Vancouver Island. And they have successfully reproduced in three. A U.S. Forest Service study looking at the threat of escaped Atlantic salmon establishing in the wild concluded that “long-term risks may be substantial if fish continue to escape from marine rearing pens or freshwater hatcheries.”

Net pens constantly “leak” non-native Atlantic salmon. Its only a matter of time before they establish in the wild.

The reason that industrial net pens are profitable for their operators is because the environmental costs are passed on to everyone else. The industry pays nothing for its large release of untreated sewage into Puget Sound and the larger Salish Sea. It pays nothing for threatening wild fish with disease and parasites. It pays nothing for continuing releases of non-native fish. We need to end these subsidies.

Whidbey Environmental Action Network frequently criticizes our elected officials for placing claimed short-term economic benefits over long term ecosystem health and productivity. But in this case, the Island County commissioners have done the right thing by refusing to subsidize industrial fish feedlots with pollution of Puget Sound and threats to our wild fish. The state Dept. of Ecology needs to hear that we support the ban on net pens in the new Island County Shoreline Master Program.

Send comments to the Dept. of Ecology before 5 p.m. Friday, May 24 at


Steve Erickson represents the

Whidbey Environmental Action Network