OLYMPIA– The state should develop comprehensive regulations to ensure that salmon farming operations are environmentally sound and pose no threat to native salmon populations, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) scientists told members of the state Senate Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Committee in a hearing today.
The state fish and wildlife department is willing to take the lead in developing those scientific guidelines, working in concert with industry representatives and the province of British Columbia, which also has an extensive fish farming industry.
Various aspects of aquaculture operations presently are regulated by the state departments of Agriculture, Ecology and WDFW; however, no single agency has comprehensive authority over the industry.
Over 10 million pounds of Atlantic salmon, with a total economic value to the state of over $40 million, are produced annually in Washington. About 100 million pounds are produced annually in British Columbia.
Besides major escapes from fish farm operations here in 1996, 1997 and this year, about 100,000 fish are believed by experts to escape into the environment each year through chronic "leakage" from underwater net pens in British Columbia.
Today's hearing, which also included testimony from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), industry representatives and university scientists from this state and British Columbia, followed a June accident in which 115,000 non-native Atlantic salmon escaped from a fish farming operation in Puget Sound.
Testimony focused on concerns that escaped non-native fish could harm native salmon populations in Northwest waters by competing for food or habitat, preying upon them, transferring disease or interbreeding with them.
Although the Department has not seen clear evidence of such damage yet, the potential for harm exists because of the number of farmed fish which have found their way into the local environment, Amos said.
Besides recommending development of a comprehensive code of scientific salmon aquaculture practices to promote environmentally sound fish culture, WDFW made the following recommendations to reduce the environmental risk of aquaculture operations:
- Use non-reproducing fish in Atlantic salmon aquaculture to eliminate the risk of farmed fish colonizing the state's waters.
- Re-establish the authority of WDFW or another appropriate state agency to regulate aquaculture, including determining the species which could be raised, inspecting aquaculture operations, providing educational opportunities for aquaculturalists and establishing an Atlantic Salmon Watch program as focal point for gathering data.
- Devote adequate funding for management of the Atlantic salmon industry in this state.
- Actively work with both the British Columbia government and the aquaculture industry to develop consistent aquaculture policies throughout the region.