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Originally published October 20, 2011 at 9:20 PM | Page modified October 21, 2011 at 6:36 AM

Plan for huge fish farm in Strait roils the waters

An Oregon company wants to build a fish farm in the Strait of Juan de Fuca that would nearly double the farmed fish grown in saltwater in Washington. The proposal comes as battles over marine aquaculture heat up, and as the discovery of a potentially lethal fish virus rattles salmon farmers and wild-fish advocates alike.

Seattle Times environment reporter

quotes NO MORE SALMON FARMS!!!!!!!!! Spend the money on keeping wild salmon a viable fishery... Read more
quotes NO fish farms. NO Atlantic Salmon. NO! Friends don't let friends buy farmed fish. Read more
quotes How about we work to restore the vast stocks of wild salmon that once turned the rivers... Read more

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Here in the Northwest, where wild salmon is king, it's easy to forget that fish farmers rear millions of Atlantic salmon in net pens around Puget Sound.

But a new fish farm hasn't been added to Washington's marine waters in several decades.

Now an Oregon company, Pacific Seafood, wants to grow 10 million pounds a year of steelhead and Atlantic salmon in cages in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That would nearly double the farmed fish grown in saltwater in Washington.

The proposal comes as long-simmering battles over the future of marine aquaculture heat up across the continent — and as the discovery of a potentially lethal fish virus rattles salmon farmers and wild-fish advocates alike.

Just this summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration outlined ways to encourage substantial growth in fish farming to counter a $9 billion seafood-trade imbalance.

Roughly 85 percent of fish and shellfish consumed in the U.S. is imported — half from fish farms in other countries. Some experts believe a global expansion of fish farming will be needed to provide the world's booming population with cheap protein.

"There's a recognition that we are harvesting what we can in wild-capture fisheries, but the demand for seafood continues to grow," said Laura Hoberecht, regional coordinator for NOAA's aquaculture program. "That's going to have to come from farmed products."

But scientists still debate how much of that should be salmon, and just last month in Vancouver, B.C., the potential ecological challenges of salmon farming again took center stage.

A commission led by a federal judge took testimony from scientists and citizens about the possibility that disease, parasites and escapees from salmon farms contributed to a collapse of the Fraser River's famed wild sockeye runs. A final report is due next summer.

Then this week, scientists for the first time said they'd found evidence of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) in two wild sockeye smolts along Canada's Pacific Coast. In its most lethal form, the virus has killed tens of millions of farmed salmon in Norway, Chile, Scotland and New Brunswick, Canada, and some scientists fear it could mutate and pose a risk to wild fish.

There is no sign of a disease outbreak, and the virus' existence in the two fish from northern B.C.'s Rivers Inlet hasn't been confirmed by independent tests. But virologists from several U.S. and Canadian agencies are treating it as an emergency.

"It's certainly of big concern to us," said John Kerwin, who oversees salmon farms for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's definitely caught our attention."

It's in this environment that Pacific Aquaculture, a division of Pacific Seafood that farms steelhead along the Columbia River in Eastern Washington, hopes to develop a new fish farm in the waters off Clallam County.

"There's now more salmon farmed in the world than there is caught in the wild," John Bielka, general manager of Pacific Aquaculture, said last week, before the ISA announcement. "We'd like to see it done here and keep the jobs here, and the Strait is an excellent area for this type of farming."

In early stages

The project is in its infancy — company executives haven't filed for permits and expect to visit regulators next month to learn how they should proceed — but Pacific Aquaculture has circulated a 16-page outline of its plans.

It would lease 180 acres just offshore, between the Lyre and Twin rivers 20 miles west of Port Angeles, where, Bielka said, heavy flushing would dilute fish waste. It would arrange two rows of 12 circular net pens, each 130 feet in diameter.

One set would be stocked with 145,000 steelhead fingerlings per cage. The other set would be stocked with about 85,000 Atlantic salmon smolt per pen. All told, the company hopes to produce 4.5 million pounds of salmon and 6 million pounds of steelhead a year.

"It would be sold solely for domestic consumption," Bielka said.

The company's only close competitor, Seattle's Icicle Seafoods, has farms at eight sites from Bainbridge Island to Port Angeles and grows about 13.8 million pounds of Atlantic salmon a year.

"There's a ton of potential for growth," said Alan Cook, vice president at Icicle. "It's a good business."

It has been in British Columbia. There, dotted throughout the fjords and inlets off Vancouver Island and the mainland, 70 to 75 Atlantic salmon farms operate at any given time, producing more than 150 million pounds of fish a year.

"Our country represents 5 percent of the world's supply" of farmed salmon, Colleen Dane, spokeswoman for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, wrote in an email. "Places like Norway and Chile produce in the 30-35 percent range."

But British Columbia has had some significant problems. Hundreds of thousands of fish have escaped, raising concerns about potential competition with wild fish. Farmers kill hundreds of seals and sea lions each year to keep them away from their prized crop.

Juvenile wild fish swimming past farms have picked up parasites or been exposed to diseases. Waste from fish feces and feed has fouled areas with slow currents.

While marine finfish aquaculture in the U.S. is a fraction of B.C.'s size, it remains wildly unpopular in many corners.

Earlier this year, Jefferson County tried to adopt an outright ban on finfish farming — even though no farms exist and no one had plans to start one. Some neighbors in Clallam County already are gearing up to fight Pacific Aquaculture's plans.

"It's going to be a bitter, bitter battle," said Olympic Peninsula resident Margaret Owens. "We immediately worry about the impact it will have on our subgroup of resident whales. It's right where they pass back and forth and feed."

Michael Rubino, who manages NOAA's aquaculture program, said opposition to Atlantic salmon farming is often based on criticism that's out of date.

"There's a huge amount we've learned about what to do and what not to do," he said.

Kerwin, who regulates the farms, said they are tested and retested for viruses and disease, and each fish is marked so escapees can be traced. Imported eggs are quarantined and treated with disinfectant. Puget Sound's salinity reduces the threat of sea lice. The regulations are among the strictest anywhere.

Outside experts agree many salmon farms have come a long way.

"On the plus side, the cost of production is way down and therefore the cost to consumers is low — you're basically getting good protein for the price of chicken, and it's healthier in terms of important Omega-3s (fatty acids)," said Roz Naylor, a food-security expert at Stanford University. "But you still have many of the same problems of escapes, disease, parasites, pollution and the issue of feed, which is a big one."

Most fishmeal and fish oil consumed by aquaculture comes from wild fish, and some researchers fear that could lead to overfishing just to feed farmed fish. Federal agencies are working on promoting alternative types of fish feed.

Bielka, with Pacific Aquaculture, said he knows the company will face scrutiny, but "the science is behind us 100 percent," he said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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