LONE TREE POINT, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community — The net was alive and thrashing with pink salmon as fishers drew their catch up on the beach.
This place has been a beloved fishing spot on the Swinomish reservation for generations, and beach seine fishing the run of pinks storming back to the Skagit River is a seasonal rite.
Now the tribe has joined as a friend of the court in a lawsuit to block permits that allow steelhead farming in a commercial net pen just offshore near Hope Island. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case next week.
In its brief filed in the case, Swinomish tribal leaders, elders and fishers say the pen is a deep cultural insult and violation of their treaty fishing rights. The pen’s anchor lines foul their nets, tangle crab pots and force tribal fishers to keep clear of a productive fishing area they reserved a right to in the Treaty of Point Elliott, tribal members stated in declarations.
The operation covers about 32 acres of Skagit Bay.
Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, the net-pen operator, is part of family-owned Cooke Aquaculture Inc. based in New Brunswick, Canada. It was started in 1985 with just 5,000 fish. Today it is a seafood giant involved in all aspects of the business. From steelhead in Puget Sound to Atlantic salmon in Maine, Scotland and Chile, to sea bream and sea bass in Spain and shrimp farms in Honduras and Nicaragua, the company has continued to grow and established itself in Washington with the purchase of eight net pens in 2016.
The company employs 10,000 people globally, including 4,067 employees in the U.S. with 216 in Washington state. Of those, 40 work at Cooke Aquaculture Pacific and the rest are at Cooke’s Icicle Seafoods office in Seattle, according to Cooke spokesperson Joel Richardson.
Its operations became controversial almost immediately with an escape of Atlantic salmon from its Cypress Island farm in 2017. Three years ago, Cooke was fined $332,000 and found negligent by the state Department of Ecology for the escape.
The incident led the Legislature in 2018 to phase out farming of nonnative fish species by 2025.
So Cooke pivoted to rainbow trout, or steelhead, a Washington native species, in its Hope Island pen. The fish were hatched from eggs raised in Washington, using a method that renders the fish sterile, and nearly entirely female.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife issued permits for stocking the pens at Hope Island in August and September, with about 365,000 trout, Richardson said. The company also received permit from the Department of Ecology, intended to assure water-quality protection.
“These have been approved after years of extensive scientific review and public input,” Richardson said.
The approval has angered pen opponents whose appeal over permits for stocking the pens is now before the Supreme Court.
The pen is just 1,000 feet from the beach, near the mouth of the Skagit River, the region’s premier wild salmon and steelhead producer. The net pen was first permitted by the state for operation in 1985.
To be sure, there is no evidence escaped farmed fish have bred with wild fish in Washington, or that farmed fish have caused disease in Washington wild fish. Yet opponents are concerned that, if anything, the steelhead being raised by Cooke pose more of risk to Skagit steelhead swimming right by the pen than the Atlantics did, Mike LeMoine, senior research scientist of the Skagit River System Cooperative, stated in his declaration to the court.
As they gathered in the pinks at Lone Tree Point, fishers said they just want to fish without having to avoid the net pen and its anchor lines — or look at the facility in their treaty-protected fishing grounds.
Fisher John Grossglass leaned back, putting his whole body into pulling in the net as salmon surged all around him. “It feels good,” he said, “this is really important to us. It’s what we do.”
Both hands full, he jerked his head toward the net pen and frowned. “That needs to go.”
Demand for farmed seafood
Across the U.S., $1.5 billion in marine and freshwater species were raised in aquaculture in 2018, totaling 680 million pounds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That included 45 million pounds of oysters worth $219 million, $122 million worth of clams and 36 million pounds of farmed salmon, worth $66 million.
And demand at the supermarket and other venues for farmed fish is strong, said Jeanne McKnight, executive director for the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance, a Covington-based trade association that promotes and lobbies for the aquaculture industry in Washington.
Customers like the affordability, year-round availability, mild flavor and nutritional value of farmed fish, McKnight said.
She argues that the United States needs to produce more aquaculture to reduce the reliance on imported stocks.
“We have an appetite for seafood and for farmed products; we just don’t have an appetite in this country for growing it here. We import 80% of the seafood we consume, of which 50% is farmed,” she said. “We are importing a lot of farmed seafood; we need to be able to grow it here.”
The U.S. is a minor aquaculture producer on the world stage, ranking 17th in global production in 2018, according to NOAA.
But in Washington, aquaculture has been a niche and important industry, mostly for shellfish. Washington is the largest producer of hatchery-reared and farmed shellfish in the U.S., with more than 300 farms accounting for 25% of the total domestic production by weight, according to the Pacific Shellfish Institute.
Even so, Washington is the only state in the West Coast that allows net pen aquaculture. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, announced in 2020 the country is shifting to land-based fish farming by 2025.
Multiple environmental groups led by the Wild Fish Conservancy appealed the permits for Cooke’s steelhead stocking to the state Supreme Court, raising concerns about disease, escape and pollution.
Richardson said the suit is baseless.
“WDFW conducted an extensive analysis of potential risks associated with farming sterile, all female rainbow trout. That analysis took a year and included consultation with scientists, tribes and public comment,” he said. “The permit was challenged and upheld in its entirety by the superior court, and allows for farming of rainbow trout. The fish are grown from local stocks, using the same egg source WDFW uses for stocking lakes and rivers in Washington.”
Lease renewal under review
Ken Warheit, director of fish health for the WDFW, said he is sympathetic to the tribe’s concerns. “Of course I hear them; how could I not?” Warheit said in an interview.
However, the location of the net pen is not within the purview of the permit, and neither are treaty rights, Warheit said. Rather, the department looked hard at the soundness of the pen, and the fish. The department and a third-party review determined the pen to be structurally satisfactory. And the fish are clean of any disease regulated by the department, Warheit said.
If opponents sought to stop the stocking before the Supreme Court case, they should have sought an injunction from the court, said Warheit, adding he can’t hold up permits just because an appeal of the permits is pending.
While the court fight grinds on, anti-net pen activists also have been working to send signatures on a petition to Hilary Franz, state Commissioner of Public Lands, urging her to not renew the Department of Natural Resources leases on the pens when they come due.
The Hope Island and Rich Passage leases are still active and expire March 31 and Nov. 10, 2022, respectively. The Port Angeles and Cypress Island leases are terminated. Both terminations are pending a challenge in court.
All options are on the table for the leases, said Carlo Davis, chief of staff for Franz, and work is already underway to assess the future of the leases, “taking a wholistic view.”
DNR has advised Cooke the leases for the pens where the company has planted its trout expire before the fish will mature enough to harvest. “We’ve let them know the risk is on them,” Davis said.