OLYMPIA — A bill sponsored by a Sequim Democrat in the state House would allow counties to ban net pen aquaculture.
The one-page bill, filed Thursday by state Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, a Sequim Democrat, says: “Master programs may include provisions for siting or prohibiting the siting of marine aquaculture net pen facilities.”
Steve Gray, Clallam County deputy director of the Department of Community Development, said that he was not familiar with the specifics of the bill, but said that some people in the county favor instituting a net pen ban.
Gray is in charge of Clallam County’s update of its shoreline master program, an endeavor still in early stages.
“We have a ways to go on this,” he said.
“The next step would be to develop a working draft and submit it to the planning commission, followed by a series of public hearings.”
The one net pen operation in Clallam County is under the jurisdiction of the city of Port Angeles, Gray said.
The bill, although welcomed by Jefferson County commissioners, may not affect that county even if it becomes law, said Commissioner David Sullivan.
“I’ve heard about this bill, but I’m not sure it will change our situation,” Sullivan said.
“The bill would go into effect in July and we may have a conditional use structure by then.”
The county’s shoreline management plan has been on hold for two years during negotiations between the county and the state Department of Ecology, which supervises net pen aquaculture — the raising of species such as Atlantic salmon in pens.
County officials want to ban the practice while the Department of Ecology has ruled that counties do not have the right to do so.
The bill, which has been referred to the House Local Government Committee, adds that it does not allow a local government to ban facilities in conformity with requirements as of July 28 of this year.
An operator of a fish fin aquaculture farm in Port Angeles wants the state to continue to supervise the industry.
“We oppose the bill,” said Alan Cook, vice president of Seattle-based American Gold Seafoods, which operates net pen farms in the Port Angeles Harbor.
The company also operates off Bainbridge Island, Cypress Island, Hope Island and two hatcheries near Rochester.
“There is a lot of information out there and we don’t feel that the counties are equipped to make the decision,” Cook said.
Van De Wege disagrees, saying that he doesn’t expect county governments to unilaterally oppose fish farming.
“This is all about local control,” Van De Wege said.
“Counties are always developing their shoreline management plans and this gives them the ability to allow or not allow fish farming.”
Van De Wege represents the 24th District, which covers Jefferson and Clallam counties and part of Grays Harbor County, along with Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, and state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam.
Jefferson County Commissioner Phil Johnson, who has adamantly opposed in-water fish farming, hailed the bill as “a step in the right direction.”
“It gives local counties approval over their shoreline management programs and lets them make decisions on their own,” Johnson said.
Johnson said Ecology’s control “is frustrating because it goes against the idea that we need to protect the native species.”
A key issue in guidelines under development now for a potential conditional use permit process is the potential spread of parasites and pollutants from farmed fish to wild fish, County Administrator Philip Morley said last fall.
Tests in May confirmed the presence of an influenza-like virus called infectious hematopoietic necrosis, or IHN, in the American Gold Seafoods fish contained in 2 acres of nets near the shores of Bainbridge Island.
No virus was found in the company’s Port Angeles fish.
Cook said that as an approved water dependent use, net pens do not pose an intrinsic danger to Puget Sound.
“This is a highly regulated industry,” Cook said.
“If counties are allowed to restrict one water-dependent use, it could restrict other approved uses.”
Jefferson County commissioners hope to clear the way to complete the update that was sent to the state in November 2010, the bulk of which Ecology approved in February 2011 except for the county’s proposed ban on fin-fish aquaculture.
The present shoreline master program permits net pen aquaculture. No company has approached Jefferson County about opening such an operation within the county.
The state in July offered three possible solutions and the county commissioners decided to pursue a possible conditional-use permitting process in which each application would go before a hearing examiner and be subject to a public hearing.
The county staff now is preparing several options for the development of a conditional use permit and will present them this month, Sullivan said.
Van De Wege said the bill, HB 1599, does not affect any net pens that are in operation now. It does not have a Senate equivalent now.
Van De Wege said he expects counties to decide whether or not to approve net pens based on the latest technology, which is always evolving.
“Counties may have concerns about fish farming, but that could change as soon as new methods are implemented,” Van De Wege said.
“And if the county forbids fish farming they can change their SMPs in the future when new techniques are adopted.”