Clallam County, Washington, has put a temporary hold on an aquaculture company's application to relocate and expand a salmon farm near Port Angeles. This comes as the company is cleaning up after a mass escape of non-native Atlantic salmon from a different net pen it owns to the east at Cypress Island.
Opponents of salmon farming are seizing the moment.
A capacity crowd packed into a meeting hall in Sequim Tuesday night for a forum organized by the Sierra Club North Olympic Group. The audience sighed and groaned as presenters from environmental groups listed risks from marine fish farming, eventually zeroing in on Cooke Aquaculture.
That global company wants to move and expand its current salmon net pen operation in Port Angeles harbor to a location about four miles east in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The proposal entails 14 circular, open water cages and a feed barge with a total capacity about 20 percent larger than the current net pens in the harbor. The stated motive for the relocation is to get the fish away from a new U.S. Navy pier under construction right next door.
"We do not want to deny anyone's right to grow fish for profit to, you know, feed the world," said Puget Soundkeeper Alliance Executive Director Chris Wilke. "But these operations can exist on shore. That's the way we grow rainbow trout. That's the way we grow tilapia. That's the way we grow catfish and it can be done with salmon too."
On Saturday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and the state lands commissioner suspended state permitting of new Atlantic salmon marine net pens. Clallam County followed suit early this week, cancelling a planned public hearing on September 7 for a shoreline development permit requested by Cooke Aquaculture.
Clallam County Planning Manager Steve Gray said the company asked for a postponement on Monday when he contacted them.
"In light of Cypress Island they asked to postpone so they could focus on emergency response," Gray said. "The application is on hold."
The state and the county are treating the proposal to move and expand the Port Angeles net pen as a new salmon farm for purposes of permitting. The local operation dates back 30 years in Port Angeles harbor. Just over a year ago, Cooke bought it and three other existing Atlantic salmon farms in Puget Sound including the one that collapsed this month.
The suspension on state permitting or new aquatic leases is meant to last until a "full review" of the Cypress Island fish spill has been completed. The company initially blamed strong tidal forces preceding the August 21 solar eclipse for the mangled fish pens, but in recent days has backed off that explanation for the catastrophe.
Cooke Aquaculture emailed a short statement Tuesday that said its "focus now is entirely on efforts to remove the fish that remain" followed by removal of damaged equipment at the site of the wrecked Cypress Island fish farm.
"We’ll be working with all relevant agencies in the weeks ahead with regards to current and future operations in the state," wrote Communications Manager Chuck Brown.
Wild Fish Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee fired up the audience in Sequim Tuesday night by describing how Atlantic salmon net pens are effectively banned in every other West Coast U.S. state -- California, Oregon and Alaska.
"We need to run them right out of the state," he said before giving details of a waterborne protest planned for mid-September by Bainbridge Island, site of another longstanding saltwater net pen.
In 2016, American Gold Seafoods submitted permit applications for the expanded Port Angeles aquaculture operation to six agencies: Clallam County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The main reason the company cited in its cover letter to Clallam County's Department of Community Development for wanting to move its net pens out of Port Angeles Harbor was because of anticipated disruption and "operational risks" from a new Navy pier now under construction close by on Ediz Hook. The pier will be home to a fleet of submarine escort vessels.
New Brunswick, Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture bought all four of American Gold Seafoods' Puget Sound fish farms shortly thereafter last year.
The existing net pen operation in Port Angeles has ten full-time employees according to a letter from the company to Clallam County this spring.