Developing state guidance for commercial marine net pen aquaculture

In 2015, we started leading a science-based planning effort to identify the environmental risks and potential impacts of marine finfish aquaculture and improve oversight of Atlantic salmon net pens operating in state waters.

As part of the process, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) agreed to support the effort by providing scientific data associated with the industry that would be used to produce a well-informed guidance document with updated management recommendations.

This process was underway when a commercial net pen off Cypress Island in the Puget Sound suffered catastrophic failure on Aug. 19, 2017, releasing at least 240,000 Atlantic salmon to Puget Sound. The incident attracted significant public attention and concern about the industry and potential risks that operations raising non-native salmon might pose to native fish populations.

The project was temporarily put on hold while state agencies responded.

The 2018 Washington Legislature passed, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law, House Bill 2957. Part of the bill phases out Atlantic salmon net pens by 2022 and prohibits new commercial aquaculture operations from raising non-native finfish in state waters.

The measure also directed the Washington departments of Agriculture, Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, and Natural Resources to complete the effort to update guidance and informational resources for planning and permitting.

To fulfill this mandate, the state and NCCOS continued the effort to produce a new guidance document. However, for a variety of reasons, the task to develop a document that offered both the latest science and updated management recommendations proved challenging and time-consuming.

As a result, NCCOS agreed to complete a state of the science report and state agencies began developing a separate guidance document that will inform oversight of Atlantic salmon net pens until they are phased out in 2022 and management of commercial marine net pens rearing native species.

Focus area

The focus area includes Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. These bodies of water have existing Atlantic salmon net pens, and the depth and currents appropriate for net pen aquaculture. The project team is also looking broadly across the body of science to better understand the effects of commercial net pens outside their immediate locations.

Project schedule

  • Ongoing: Consultation with tribal governments and development of guidance document.
  • Early 2020: Project partners provide feedback on early draft of guidance document.
  • March 2020: Agencies prepare revised draft for public comment.
  • April 2020: Take public comments.
  • May 2020: Finalize guidance document and recommendations.

Project status

The project team has updated an outline for the written guidance that includes native species. The draft guidance document and other materials will be provided as they become available.

How the results will be used

Gov. Inslee and the state agencies are working to ensure that commercial finfish net-pen aquaculture does not put Pacific salmon recovery at risk. The state is not addressing freshwater aquaculture, fisheries enhancement pens, or baitfish rearing pens. 

The new guidance will help:

  • Local governments and state agencies identify and address risks from both existing and future commercial net pens in marine waters.
  • Deliver recommendations for future consideration by state managers and the Legislature.

The new guidance will not:

  • Directly change state laws or regulations.
  • Deter, stop, promote, or expand commercial aquaculture in Washington.