What Was Washington State Thinking?

I am still shaking my head at a law enacted this spring in Washington State that bans farming of non-native aquaculture species. This decision was a direct result of the escape of roughly 300,000 Atlantic salmon from Cooke Aquaculture’s net pen farm off the Washington coast. Cooke clearly made mistakes - their nets were not well maintained despite multiple warning leading to a complete collapse and a mass escape of fish into the ocean. Cooke’s initial explanation of what happened – ‘don’t blame us, it was the solar eclipse’- was laughable at best. The company’s reputation took a well-deserved hit as a result. They deserve a hefty fine and perhaps an extended prohibition from farming state waters.

Does this mean Washington’s new law banning ALL non-native aquafarming is needed and makes sense? Well, it was opposed by fishery scientists, including past directors of NOAA’s national aquaculture program, who said it was passed without ‘understanding the ramifications of such an action or reviewing the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed science that exists’ and said the law risks killing an industry that is crucial to solving our ability to feed mankind. So no. A better solution would be strengthening the laws on aquaculture farming to provide adequate inspection and regulatory powers and the ability impose significant fines on bad actors. Instead the state legislature chose to eliminate fish farming altogether to ‘protect’ native species.

If this is a good idea, I have a fantastic new law the Washington legislature might want to take up in their next session. I call it ‘The Native Species Agriculture Protection Act of 2019’. Before the 1800’s large populations of elk and pronghorn antelope covered Washington state but today ranches raising non-native species like cattle occupy much of their former range. This new law would protect the native species by simply banning cattle ranching. Ranchers could be just as productive raising antelopes, right? To extend this wonderful idea further, farmers growing non-native and invasive crops like apples, potatoes, wheat, and cherries would be required to convert their farms to such native plant species as chicory, balsamroot, and groundcone. What could possibly go wrong?

In all seriousness, though, hyper-reacting to an isolated event committed by one bad actor with the wholesale banning an industry makes no sense. It also serves to endanger humanity’s long-term food supply. The world needs new sources of protein and the most sustainable place that can come from is the intelligent management of the oceans. Done correctly, aquaculture in offshore waters has the potential to essentially meet our protein needs. Hopefully, Washington will come to its senses are reconsider their legislation.

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