Washington Cancels Net Pen Salmon Farm Leases

Image: Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Washington state officials have declined to renew expired leases for two remaining finfish net pens citing the damage done in the Cypress Island net pen collapse of 2017.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources in mid-November informed Cooke Aquaculture, based in Saint John, Canada, that the agency would not renew the two aquaculture facilities leases in Rich Passage off Bainbridge Island and off Hope Island in Skagit Bay.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said that the catastrophic event sparked an effort to terminate finfish net pen operations due to lease violations.

“Despite years of litigation – and a company that has fought us every step of the way – we are not able to deny lease renewals for the remaining net pen sites,” Franz said.

The decision will return those waters to wild fish and natural habitat and free Puget Sound of enclosed cages, she said.

Franz cited the decision as a critical step to support Washington state waters, fishermen, tribes and the native salmon that fisheries biologists are fighting to save.

The Canadian firm was given until Dec. 14 to finish operations, begin removing its facilities and to repair any environmental damage. The Hope Island lease expired in March and has been in month-to-month holdover status since. The Rich Passage lease expired in November.

Salish tribes and conservation groups called the decision a step toward protecting habitat for struggling stocks of native salmon.

“Removal of the existing net pen will restore full access to the tribe’s culturally important fishing area in northern Skagit Bay,” Swinomish Indian Tribal Community chairman Steve Edwards said.

“Swinomish are the People of the Salmon, and fishing has been our way of life since time immemorial. Cooke’s net pens have interfered with the exercise of our treaty rights for far too long. We look forward to the day when the Hope Island net pen facility will be a distant memory.”

“By removing the Sound’s remaining net pens, our delicate ecosystem now gets a chance to replenish, repair and heal,” Samish Indian Nation Chairman Tom Wooten said.

Emma Helverson, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, said Franz’s decision proves she is both accountable to the public and dedicated to protecting Puget Sound’s irreplaceable public heritage for current and future generations.