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Lawmakers consider bill to ban commercial net pens for fish farms after massive spill

FILE PHOTO: Aerial images from Air 4 show a broken net pen owned by Cooke Aquaculture after thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon accidentally spilled into Puget Sound in August, 2017. (Photo: KOMO News/Air 4)

OLYMPIA, Wash. - A bill that would ban commercial net pens used for fish farms in Washington State is now being considered in Olympia.

It comes after last August's massive spill in the Puget Sound where tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon were released near the San Juan Islands, and more than 105,000 remain unaccounted for.

"That is a great concern," said Sen. Kevin Ranker, (D-Orcas Island), who is sponsoring the bill that would ban Atlantic salmon farms in Washington.

On Tuesday, Ranker testified at a hearing of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.

"Having these fish, which are considered - under our own laws - a pollutant in our ecosystem makes no sense if we are going to continue to recover our marine ecosystem," said Ranker.

Ranker is worried about more fish escaping from net pens in the future and the daily operations of the facilities owned by Canadian-based Cooke Aquaculture.

"Frankly, this bill kills rural jobs," said Troy Nichols of Phillips Burgess Government Relations who testified on behalf of Cooke Aquaculture.

Cooke Aquaculture employs 80 people at its eight facilities in Washington.

"We do an excellent job raising fish there- here in the Puget Sound, said Tom Glaspie who is the farm manager at Cooke's Hope Island facility. "We give it our all. We care about the environment. Most of us are fishermen; (our) families have fished, and we're proud to be Washingtonians."

Cooke Aquaculture leaders say they have invested more than $70 million into the state's economy through its operations, which has included upgrading equipment. The company has also offered to help fund a scientific review of net pen aquaculture.

"As a company we make those investments to make sure that the environment is being protected," said Cooke Aquaculture Vice President Joel Richardson. "The fact is that the science shows that there are not the negative impacts that a lot of folks are talking about. The science shows otherwise."

According to Cooke Aquaculture, the fish that have been recovered from the Cypress Island incident have empty stomachs and are not competing with native stock for food.

Richardson said the Atlantic salmon do not feed in the wild or "intermix" with other species, and that there is not an environmental hazard.

Opponents of the net pens, however, argue, this is about protecting the recreational fishing industry, which Ranker said accounts for 1.6 billion dollars in our state and tens of thousands of jobs.

"The Pacific salmon for us- it is our it. It is us, so when you take that away from us it's extremely difficult for us," said Sen. John McCoy.

Cook Aquaculture filed a lawsuit last week against the Department of Natural Resources.

The company is challenging DNR's attempt to terminate Cooke's lease at its salmon farm in Port Angeles.

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