Shoreline Planning and Commercial Finfish Net Pens

Why it matters

Aquaculture is an historic, water-dependent use of Washington’s shorelines. Commercial finfish net pens have operated in our state waters for almost 40 years. There currently are 8 permitted commercial, non-tribal, finfish net pens encompassing 21 acres in Puget Sound. There are no commercial net pens on the outer coast or in inland Washington. All 8 operations are owned by Icicle Seafoods and contain Atlantic salmon. They are located near:

Based on the best scientific knowledge and advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the Department of Ecology (Ecology) has concluded that when commercial finfish net pens are properly sited and operated, they are compatible with a healthy marine environment.

This is important because more than 200 cities and counties are updating or will soon update their shoreline master programs consistent with a 1995 legislative directive. Locally-tailored shoreline master programs combine local plans for future shoreline development and preservation with new shoreline development ordinances and related permitting requirements. They are the cornerstone of the Shoreline Management Act, a state law passed by voter referendum in 1972 and still in effect. Shoreline programs are one of many regulatory tools for siting and permitting commercial net pens.

Some local governments and citizens have raised concerns about potential adverse environmental and economic effects from net pens such as escaped fish, disease, sea lice and water quality. All these issues are addressed through state and federal regulations and permits.

Ecology is working closely with local governments to respond to these concerns. We rely on the best, most relevant information when we review a shoreline program for approval. This includes 40 years of Shoreline Management Act administration and interpretation. This is a dynamic approach that evolves as science, state law, and local community concerns change.

A water-dependent, preferred use of our shorelines

Icicle Seafoods floating net pen Ediz Hook Port Angeles
Icicle Seafoods’ floating net pen platform and equipment near Ediz Hook, Port Angeles.

Local shoreline programs must comply with the Shoreline Management Act and related state guidelines containing provisions about aquaculture which includes commercial net pens. These provisions are clear: Aquaculture is a preferred water-dependent use of our state shorelines. State law requires local governments to identify where water-dependent uses will be sited in their shoreline programs. The provisions require cities and counties give first preference to reserving appropriate areas for protecting and restoring the ecological functions of local shorelines before reserving areas for water-dependent uses. And water-dependent uses are preferred over other types of uses.

The Shoreline Management Act is also clear that for shorelines of statewide significance, including all Washington marine waters, statewide interests take precedence over local interests. Aquaculture, including net pens, is specifically identified as an activity of statewide interest.  

Options for local governments

Ecology may approve a local shoreline program that specifically prohibits commercial net pens when there is information and justification supporting such a measure. The agency has allowed prohibitions or restrictions in jurisdictions where net-pen aquaculture does not and is highly unlikely to occur such as in the city of DuPont in Pierce County. Ecology also will allow prohibitions in certain waters, based on site specific conditions such as low water circulation, low dissolved oxygen or high use conflicts as in parts of the Hood Canal.

Ecology supports the current manner in which the state's shoreline law and guidelines address net pen operations. Cities and counties are required to:

Local governments can require the proponent of a commercial net pen operation to get a substantial development permit (SDP) and/or a conditional use permit (CUP) before allowing the activity to be sited. An SDP is for development costing more than $6,416, which most net pens exceed. Both permits give cities and counties the ability to review specific proposals and mitigate impacts. The permits also give local governments the ability to confirm the applicant has all the proper state and federal permits and allows review of:

Ecology’s current advice to local governments is to require a CUP regardless whether an SDP is required – giving both local and state entities an opportunity to review proposals based on the most current and best information.

Regulating net pens

Icicle Seafoods floating net pen near Fort Ward Bainbridge Island Icicle Seafood’s net pen near Fort Ward, Bainbridge Island.

During the past 20 years, the commercial net pen industry in Washington has become more regulated and significantly changed its practices. Many historic concerns regarding escapement, disease, sea lice and water quality are now addressed through state permits and updated operations.

In 1991, Ecology issued the first National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) water quality permit for salmon net pen operations in Washington. All of Icicle Seafoods’ commercial net pens now operate under an NPDES permit that outlines best management practices. Net pen operators must minimize their impacts to water quality and submit regular reports to Ecology. The current permits include salmon escapement and recapture plans, sea lice monitoring plans, and reporting of fish feed, biomass and chemical usage on a monthly basis. All Atlantic salmon are marked. Monitoring data shows the current 8 facilities have not produced any measurable water quality impacts since the NPDES permits were issued.

Science informs our review and approval

Ecology has consulted with and relies heavily on science agencies engaged in studying and regulating both native wild salmon and commercial finfish net pens, including:

Based on the advice and expertise of these agencies, combined with 20 years of water quality monitoring data, Ecology has concluded that when properly sited and operated, commercial net pens are compatible with a healthy marine environment. Some locations, such as nutrient-sensitive areas in Hood Canal, simply are not well-suited for net pen aquaculture. Prohibitions of net pen operations in such locations may well be warranted.

Ecology has been sharing this relevant information with local governments through direct communications, presentations and printed guidance. We also have worked to better educate state and federal agency staff.

Conclusions

State law and Ecology regulations identify water-dependent uses – including commercial finfish net pens – as a preferred use for state shorelines and waters. Therefore, jurisdiction-wide prohibitions of new commercial net pens may be in conflict with the Shoreline Management Act and related rules. However, prohibitions in some waters may be warranted in certain circumstances – depending on site specific conditions.

Commercial net pens are currently permitted by Ecology and other state and federal agencies, and are required to mitigate environmental impacts. Along with state and federal statutes and regulations, local shoreline master programs are required to contain policies and regulations that apply to new net pen operations.

Local governments also may require conditional use permits for new commercial net pens, and use the permit process to evaluate proposals and require mitigation. Having a fair and balanced process for evaluating proposed net pens does not equate to pre-approving these operations.

Ecology is working with local governments and using the most relevant science to inform our review and approval of local shoreline program updates. The content of these updated shoreline programs will have a strong influence on the future of net pens in Washington.

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