Last week, the state of Washington banned commercial fish farming with net pens in state waters. Net pen farming has already been banned in California, Oregon, and Alaska, and it is wonderful to see that Washington is following this trend. This was a critically important step for a variety of reasons. Firstly, fish farming is very environmentally harmful. The main reason for the ban was the threat of farmed fish escaping their enclosures. Native salmon populations across the West Coast of the United States are struggling, and the sudden influx in farmed fish if a net pen had ruptured would have been disastrous for native populations. This scenario may seem a little far-fetched, but it isn’t. In 2017, a net pen in the Puget Sound failed, releasing 260,000 non-native Atlantic salmon into Washington waters. While a 2018 law banned the farming of non-native species in Washington waters, another mass escape of fish would still be disastrous to local ecosystems.
Trapping a bunch of fish in a small pen also creates waste problems. The excretions of fish are not a problem in the open ocean or even in smaller rivers because they are diluted throughout the water, but if a bunch of fish are concentrated in one place for a prolonged period of time, their waste will be too, harming water quality and local ecosystems. These pens can also become breeding grounds for disease, which can then be passed to native species.
A beneficial social aspect of this ban is that it protects the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen. Small-scale fishing is much more environmentally friendly than massive aquaculture operations, so preserving these jobs has benefits for all. In the same vein, this ban will help protect the customs and traditions of Indigenous communities by preserving the wild salmon that is so central to their cultures.