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DNR cancels leases for last 2 net-pen salmon farms in Puget Sound

More details about future of finfish net pen aquaculture to be released Friday

Empty net pens in Rich Passage
Empty net pens in Rich Passage (Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Natural Resources)
By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has canceled the two remaining finfish net-pen aquaculture leases in Puget Sound, officials announced Monday night. 

The two leases, one in Rich Passage off Bainbridge Island and one off Hope Island in Skagit Bay, are owned by Cooke Aquaculture. 

Net-pen aquaculture continues to be controversial in Washington, where the farming system is considered “high risk” because of the possibility of failure, according to the Canadian conservation organization SeaChoice. 

Washington residents have already seen the negative impacts of net-pen aquaculture, following the 2017 Cypress Island Atlantic salmon net-pen failure. When the nets, owned by Cooke, failed, between 243,000 and 263,000 Atlantic salmon escaped, according to estimates from DNR. 

The collapse was decried as an environmental disaster in some news accounts at the time, and small numbers of Atlantic salmon were later found upstream in Puget Sound rivers, including the Skagit. None of the salmon have proven to have reproduced or established an ongoing population in Puget Sound, however.

“Since the catastrophic Cypress Island net pen collapse in 2017, I have stood tall to defend the waters of Puget Sound,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said. “This effort began by terminating 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 now able to deny lease renewals for the remaining net-pen sites. Today, we are returning our waters to wild fish and natural habitat. Today, we are freeing Puget Sound of enclosed cages.”

Cooke will have until Dec. 14 to finish operations and begin removing its facilities, according to a press release announcing the end of the leases. 

Local tribes and conservation groups celebrated the announcement. 

“Swinomish are the People of the Salmon, and fishing has been our way of life since time immemorial,” Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Steve Edwards said. “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.”

On Friday, Franz will announce future policies related to the future of finfish net-pen aquaculture on Bainbridge Island. 

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