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'An act of gross negligence': Cooke salmon catastrophe dampens optimism at US Senate hearing on aquaculture growth

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Seafood advocates, including leaders from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Cargill, testified Wednesday before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in support of a bill that would establish a federal system for regulating and permitting offshore aquaculture farms in the United States.

But while several of the advocates and senators present at the hearing cited increasingly limited wild fishery stocks due to climate change, and a growing global aquaculture industry that is eager to locate and invest the US economy, those opposed to the bill continuously pointed to Cooke Aquaculture's 2017 netpen salmon disaster in Washington state.

"We would be remiss if we didn’t address some of the challenges," said Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, calling Cooke's escape event "an act of gross negligence," and referring to Cooke's initial blaming of the catastrophe -- ultimately led to a total ban on Atlantic salmon farming in Washington state -- on the changing of the tide and the full moon.

Cantwell's concerns were echoed during the hearing by Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, the country's largest fishing tribe. He testified during the hearing the tribe "incurred significant expense in trying to clean up the mess created by Cooke."

"The desires of a foreign corporation, Cooke Aquaculture, to negligently exploit our waters lead to the massive release of a pollutant, approximately 240,000 Atlantic salmon, an invasive species, into our waters," he said.

Julius said the tribe does endorse some forms of aquaculture, which he said have contributed to the tribe's economy.

"In order to maintain even the most meager of fisheries my people have relied on finfish and shellfish hatcheries to maintain our way of life and provide for our families," he said.

Cantwell also pointed out that she supported some forms of aquaculture in Washington state.

"Our shellfish industry has done tremendous work," she said, noting the high price countries in Asia are willing to pay for delicacies such as geoduck.

When Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss), who proposed the bill, asked Julius what would allow aquaculture industry to be "more careful" in the future, Julius replied there should be "no breeding of invasive species in our waters, period."

Preventing bad actors

Other advocates and senators on the committee were quick to point out the legislation could be a solution to preventing bad actors.

"There is no clear regulatory framework for the permitting, enforcement or management of offshore aquaculture in US federal waters," said Kathryn Unger, managing director for Cargill Aqua Nutrition North America, who testified at the hearing.

"This means anyone wanting to invest in offshore farming in US waters faces a very unclear, expensive and uncertain process to gain permission to operate. Nobody is in charge but everybody is in in charge - which leaves potential investors and farmers with few options but to take their money, and jobs, overseas."

Unger pointed to Pacifico Aquaculture, headquartered in San Diego, California, as one example.

"Instead of tackling the uncertain permitting process in the US, Pacifico took their US-based investors 60 miles south of the US border into Ensenada, Mexico, where they now operate a remarkable striped bass farm," she said.

"Pacifico employs 200 workers in Mexico, including divers, engineers, processors, harvesters and biologists, and has become a major employer in the community. The company would be willing to look into further investments in the United States, but not until the regulatory process is made clear.

State's rights

US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked NOAA officials during the hearing how they planned to address working with local and state governments on permitting offshore aquaculture.

"There are no real, enforceable boundaries between federal and state waters and the two are inextricably linked," he said.

Paul Doremus, deputy assistant administrator of operations for NOAA pointed to the agency's close collaboration with fishermen working in wild capture industries as well as NOAA's investment in tools such as "OceanReports," which it says is capable of providing custom spatial analysis of any US ocean space within seconds.

"By providing instant access to an ocean of data and spatial reports for our 'ocean neighborhoods,' this web-based tool provides a transparent, rigorous, and efficient way to identify sustainable areas for siting new ocean industries while minimizing potential user conflicts," Doremus said during his testimony.

He told Blumenthal there have been discussions around how states that don't want to allow offshore aquaculture could opt out of the legislation.

Doremus emphasized the need for a permitting mechanism to provide "consistency and predictability in the industry."

AquaBounty seen as a bright spot

During the hearing Senator Todd Young (R-Ind.) expressed great optimism for land-based salmon farmer AquaBounty, which this year began the production of genetically modified (GM) salmon at its commercial production facility in Albany, Indiana.

Young touted the jobs and innovation AquaBounty has brought to rural economies such as Indiana's, saying aquaculture "increases supply, decreases prices, and increases accessibility for a very healthy product."

AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf recently told IntraFish the company is eyeing the US Midwest to open a new facility because it would complement the current facility.

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