FILE Salmon swimming

Salmon swimming.

(The Center Square) — The Washington State Department of Natural Resources has prevailed in a years’ long effort to end fin fish farming in state-owned waters of Puget Sound, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has announced. 

However, the decision appears to be at odds with the Biden administration’s five-year plan, unveiled in October, to increase aquaculture in the United States.

Franz announced Nov. 14 that the last two fin-fish net pen leases, held by Cooke Aquaculture, will not be renewed by the state. The company is using its existing operations to raise steelhead trout.

Franz stated that the effort to terminate the leases began with lease violations by the lessee and noted the Cypress Island net pen collapse in 2017 which resulted in some 200,000 salmon escaping into the bay, according to a WDNR statement.

But the desired outcome of the effort appears to be returning the Sound to a more natural state rather than enforcing farming regulations.

In a news release, Franz said she had “stood tall to defend the waters of Puget Sound,” and, “Today, we are returning our waters to wild fish and natural habitat. Today, we are freeing Puget Sound of enclosed cages.”

The announcement came three weeks after the Biden administration unveiled its five-year strategic plan to increase aquaculture in the United States.

“To ensure resilient ecosystems, coastal communities, seafood access, and more, we must invest in and enable a robust domestic aquaculture industry. Seafood, both wild and farmed, is vital to our people, economy, and planet,” the plan, created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, states.

The plan notes that while aquaculture now provides more than half of the global supply of seafood, the United States imports about 70% of what it consumes.

Reaction to Franz’s decision by various Tribal, conservation and fisheries leaders was mixed.

“This decision is a joyous and historic victory for the recovery of wild fish, orcas, and the health of Puget Sound,” Emma Helverson, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy said in a statement.

Jim Parsons, President and CEO of tribally owned Jamestown Seafood disagreed.

“This was not a decision based on science,” Parsons said, according to published reports. “If that were the case, we would be seeing a very different decision.”

Sebastian Belle, president of the National Aquaculture Association disagrees with the decision as well.

“The US aquaculture farming community recognizes the value and benefits of regulations to protect the public, environment and farming operations,” he told The Center Square by email. “In this instance where science is ignored, which is so very critical to achieving excellence in governance and finding a balance between man and nature, no one benefits. We strongly support an independent review by objective scientists and hope the citizens of Puget Sound will agree.” 

Beyond the Puget Sound leases, Franz is reviewing policies for net pen salmon farming throughout Washington’s state-owned waters. She will announce her decision Nov. 18, 11 a.m., at a news conference on Bainbridge Island.

A spokesperson for Cooke Seafood declined to comment on the WDNR decision.