Good Sense Takes A Few Days Off In The Washington State Senate

Last week Washington State's Senate voted to ban Atlantic salmon by 2025. This is in response to the escape of Atlantic salmon from a Cooke Aquaculture farm site. The action is over-zealous and out of proportion to the potential harm the escaped fish might bring.

Last Friday, reason and proportionality sprouted wings and, together, they flew out a window in Washington State’s Senate chambers.

With a vote of 31 to 16, the Senate voted to ban Atlantic salmon farming in the state by 2025.  Their action came in response to the cataclysmic structural failure of a salmon farm owned by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific.

Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife says the August 20 farm failure released around 250,000 fish into the water surrounding Cypress Island.  The state didn’t mince any words in ascribing cause.  Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands said: “The collapse was not the result of natural causes. Cooke’s disregard caused this disaster and recklessly put our state’s aquatic ecosystem at risk.”

After reading the rest of the Fish and Wildlife report, it’s a very heavy lift to defend Cooke.

The report made clear that the state needed to take some action regarding Cooke’s on-farm performance.  However, rather than take action against Cooke for their practices, the Senate voted to ban all Atlantic salmon aquaculture.  This makes precious little sense in a babies and bathwater thinking.

For perspective’s sake, it’s interesting to  contrast the gravity of the salmon release with two previous agricultural accidents.

In September 2006, five people died and 200 others became desperately ill.  Ascribing a cause was difficult. But, after many months of joint efforts between the FDA, CDC and eight states, researchers found the  culprit was spinach tainted with E. coli from 2.8 acre plot in California that made its way to states throughout the country.

A result of this outbreak is that producers adopted new practices. So did processors.  The FDA considered new regulation.  What didn’t happen was a ban of spinach production either in California or the U.S.

Great harm happened and the response was to find a way for us to continue to have spinach, a food replete with nutritional goodness, provided to us with greater safety.

In 2011 another food-borne disease outbreak occurred.  This one came from cantaloupes produced in Colorado. Thirty-three people from 28 states died from eating these cantaloupes tainted with Listeria bacteria.

One outcome of the outbreak was that the FDA put new safety rules in place. Further, in legal proceedings, the  farmers who distributed the infected cantaloupes pleaded guilty in federal court to criminal charges.

Those who practiced negligently were punished.  But, no action occurred to force all producers out of the business for the actions of some.

Closer to home for Washingtonians is a non-agricultural event last December.  An Amtrak train from Seattle to Portland derailed while travelling 78 miles per hour in a 30 mph speed zone. Three people died and 62 were injured.  Only 17 people on the train escaped injury.

So far there has been no move by the legislature to ban either all train travel or Amtrak itself.

The sense of proportionality seems so skewed.  Neither the harm nor potential harm caused by the salmon farm collapse comes close in gravity to these three examples.

One could argue that the harm from the farm collapse was environmental harm and therefore, merits a difference sort of consideration.  This is what 21 tribal leaders did in an open letter to the Washington legislature where they wrote:

Atlantic salmon have the potential to transmit disease to our already weakened native salmon. They compete with our native salmon for dwindling resources such as food and spawning grounds. If they ever established themselves here Atlantic salmon would devastate not only Treaty protected tribal fisheries, but fisheries that all Washingtonians enjoy and benefit from. 

Data gathered by scientists and governmental officials address the potential risks mentioned in the tribal leaders’ letter. In sum, the scientific finding is that Atlantic salmon are well adapted farm animals that fare poorly in the wild.

Let’s consider the tribal leaders’ concerns:  Atlantic salmon naturalizing near after an escape, disease transmission from farmed to wild salmon, and competition for food between farmed and wild salmon.

On a number of occasions the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program addressed the possibility of Atlantic salmon naturalizing in the environment.  In their 2017 assessment of Atlantic salmon aquaculture in nearby British Columbia they write:

Atlantic salmon is non-native in B.C., but evidence increasingly shows the species is a poor colonizer outside of its native range. Despite repeated, intentional efforts over more than a century to establish Atlantic salmon for sport fishing, plus the large numbers of escapes in decades past, there is no evidence of ecological establishment in the Pacific.

As Atlantic salmon don’t breed in the Pacific, this further addresses possible concerns about competition for spawning grounds.

In a letter to the Washington State legislature, four scientists including three former NOAA officials explain that Atlantic salmon are unlikely to compete with wild salmon for food saying:

. . . peer-reviewed studies have shown convincingly that “captive” or pen-reared salmon have not learned how to “hunt” for food, simply because they are used to being fed on a regular timetable. Atlantic salmon, in particular, appear to be non-competitive with local species. Moreover, when the stomachs of “escaped” Atlantic salmon are examined, they have been found to be empty.

They go on to address disease transfer and conclude:

Salmon in an aquaculture setting are raised in a certified disease-free hatchery, then vaccinated against saltwater disease, and certified disease-free before they are moved to net pens. No example of disease transfer from farmed salmon to wild fish has ever been documented by any regulatory agency in the state of Washington.

Corroborating this the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife  says:

Consideration was given to the transfer of fish pathogens from captive and escaped Atlantic salmon to native salmon stocks. There is no evidence indicating disease transfer from Atlantic salmon to native Pacific salmon. Fish pathogens infecting Atlantic salmon are endemic to Washington and appear to come from native fish stocks.

Make no mistake; a farm falling apart and releasing a quarter million fish doesn’t remotely resemble responsible aquaculture.  Washington state is right to hold Cooke to account.

But banning salmon aquaculture isn’t a useful response. Minority senate leader Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, summed it well when he said “If we need to make improvements to regulation for the environment, that is reasonable. But an out-and-out ban is not.”

Proportionality needs to take into account that no harm came either to people or environment.  The Senate’s action is out of proportion to what happened.

Aquaculture will become increasingly important in our food future.  Fish farming is the most resource efficient way to raise farm animals and its environmental effects are much less than those for terrestrial farm animals.  The Washington Senate would do well to enact legislation that leads to improving aquacultural practice rather than banning it.

Scott Nichols © 2018