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Washington state bans commercial finfish net pen farms in state waters

Conservationists expect the new ban to help restore local fish populations and improve water quality in Puget Sound.

(CN) — Aquatic wildlife conservationists are celebrating in the Pacific Northwest after Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz issued an executive order Friday ending commercial finfish net pen aquaculture in state marine waters.

The news comes five days after Franz canceled leases with seafood company Cooke Aquaculture for remaining net pen salmon farms in Puget Sound. That action drew praise from Salish tribes and conservation groups alike.

“We say, ‘The table is set when the tide goes out.’ Seafoods have always been a staple of Samish diet and traditions,” said Tom Wooten, Samish Indian Nation chairman, in a statement this week. “By removing the sound’s remaining net pens, our delicate ecosystem now gets a chance to replenish, repair and heal. We are grateful and lift our hands to the DNR’s partnership in helping protect the Salish Sea that tie us to our history and culture.”

Emma Helverson, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, applauded this week's news.

“After the incredible news announced earlier this week, it is almost impossible to believe we are now celebrating an even bigger, groundbreaking victory for our wild salmon, orcas, and the health of Puget Sound,” said Helverson. “By denying new leases to Cooke and bringing forward this comprehensive, bold new policy to prevent commercial net pens from ever operating in Washington marine waters again, Commissioner Franz is ensuring Puget Sound will be protected, not just now, but far into the future for the benefit of generations to come.”

Franz made the announcement on at a press conference on Bainbridge Island overlooking the Rich Passage net pens, which are already outlawed in California, Oregon and Alaska. According to the Seattle Times, protesters — mostly Cooke employees — attended Franz’s news conference with signs reading “Science not Politics” and “No Farms No Food.”

The executive order addresses that while commercial finish farmers have operated marine net pens in Puget Sound for more than 40 years, Cooke’s 2017 net pen collapse near Cypress Island — which released 250,000 nonnative Atlantic salmon into the region — was the beginning of the end. Shortly after, the Legislature passed a bill prohibiting the Department of Natural Resources from authorizing any new leases for nonnative marine finfish aquaculture.

Several reports followed since then outlining the detrimental effects of net pen practices, according to the Seattle Times, from high viral transmission and lice infestations to the broader effects of commercial fishing on salmon and steelhead populations across the state. For example, low fish yields continue to starve out endangered Southern Resident killer whales, whose numbers have never rebounded after aquariums that later became SeaWorld captured a third of them in the late 1960s.

With these reasons in mind, and noting tribal sovereignty and the cultural importance of preserving the states’ fishing waters, Franz ordered the department to develop necessary changes to agency rules, policies and procedures to prohibit commercial finish net pen aquaculture on state-owned aquatic lands. According to Wild Fish Conservancy’s statement, the executive order will require Cooke to remove all net pen facilities from Puget Sound before the end of the year.

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