In August, after celebrating a First Salmon ceremony with our Lummi friends, we were touring the Tribal Center with Darryl Hillaire. His phone rang. He answered it and spoke with a grave expression and hushed tone. Cooke Aquaculture’s net-pen salmon farm on nearby Cypress Island had collapsed that morning, releasing hundreds of thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. It was a sour and alarming note to end our time with fellow salmon people.
In September, the kids and I made signs and took to the water to protest Cooke’s net-pen facility just off our home island. This net pen, the site of past viral outbreaks and source of chemical and fecal pollution, is outrageously situated adjacent to the Orchard Rocks Marine Conservation Area. The event was planned by Wild Fish Conservancy long before the Cypress Island incident, but the disaster added urgency to what we were doing. More importantly, a wider group of citizens, the media and politicians were paying attention now.
Last Friday, Governor Jay Inslee, signed into law the bill banning non-native net-pen salmon farming in Washington state. Outright victories in the fish conservation world can be few and far between, but after years of trying, this one came together quickly. Huge thanks to Wild Fish Conservancy, State Senator Kevin Ranker (who sponsored the bill), and all the activists, advocates and citizens who protested, called and raised enough of a ruckus to make this happen. It’s a big win for the Salish Sea, wild salmon, and, on a personal level, a great lesson in democracy for Skyla and Weston. We are stoked!
The protest to stop the net-pen salmon farms in Puget Sound was a bit overshadowed here (and in our lives) by the loss of our friend Bruce Hill. But in many ways, the flotilla fit the model of what Bruce always taught: It was part of a well-planned, strategic campaign (led by Wild Fish Conservancy), the kind of campaign that can actually create change. In my mind, it was also an important opportunity for the kids to participate in shaping their own future. We’ve been talking about the net pens and how they impact the Sound, and the night before, we discussed how to articulate what we were feeling in short, strong messaging for our signs. On the day of the protest, everything went perfectly. The weather was warm and calm, many boats–kayaks, SUPs, sailboats, commercial fishing boats, canoes, a boat from the Suquamish Tribe, sport-fishing boats, bow riders–showed up, and Lummi Island Wild’s enormous tender, the Galactic Ice, with our friend Riley Starks at the helm, led a procession around the dirty, putrid-smelling net pens. More importantly, the flotilla was well-attended by media, with crews from the local Island paper on up to NPR and Reuters there to cover the event. Mission accomplished.
And on the way home, with warm evening light silvery on the glassy Sound, the kids and I stopped to enjoy some of what we’re fighting to save–strong, beautiful, wild sea-run cutthroat trout. I think Bruce would approve.
The film project I’m working on took us into the Sawtooths in search of salmon 6,000 feet above sea level and 900 miles from the sea. We hiked, waded and drove miles of gorgeous water and perfect habitat that should have been alive with thousands of spawning Chinook salmon. And yet, we found almost none. The miracle of nature that once brought millions of salmon so far inland seems to have been undone by a combination of environmental events (spring drought during outmigration, hot water in the ocean) and human factors (dams, reservoirs, hatchery genetics) that conspired to wipe out this year’s run. The days and river miles passed, and it was tough to keep our mood up–all that habitat, empty. I keep wondering, what happens to the trout, whitefish, bears, wolves, trees, grass, deer, elk and all the other species that depend on salmon to deliver critical nutrients, when the keystone species can’t provide?
Sometimes the old internet just isn’t enough. And with the catastrophic failure of Cooke Aquaculture’s open-water net-pen salmon farm on Cypress Island “spilling” hundreds of thousands of invasive Atlantic salmon into the Sound, the kids and I wanted to make sure word is out about the upcoming protest.
Now is the time to strike, as they say, while the iron is hot. In response to the Cypress disaster, the State of Washington has enacted a temporary ban on new net-pen approvals, but we really need a permanent ban. One that stops Cooke from building their new facility off the mouth of the newly restored Elwha River. And one that also gets rid of existing net pens and all their associated chemicals, drugs, waste, pathogens and parasites that kill wild salmon and pollute the public resource.
Let’s gather off the south end of Bainbridge Island, where Cooke has another net-pen anchored to the Orchard Rocks State Marine Protected Area, on September 16th and make a real statement. (For details, click HERE) I think the media, the public and our state government are finally ready to tell Cooke they and their net pens are no longer welcome in the Salish Sea.
Several times a year, the kids and I like to visit the Elwha to watch nature’s progress as the river recovers from being dammed for more than 100 years. To me, it’s one of the most uplifting places on earth and a shining example of humans making up for past mistakes. The kids, I think, grasp this on some level, but also look forward to our time out there simply to be outside in a beautiful place.
This visit, though, wasn’t without some sad news. Despite mountains of published, peer-reviewed science demonstrating the negative impacts hatchery fish have on wild fish recovery (because of bad genetics, competition and attraction of unnaturally high levels of predators), earlier this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a previous decision that put severe limits on hatchery fish releases in the Elwha. The Elwha hatchery was ready to go, and the day after the court decision, they started releasing vast numbers of juvenile salmon and steelhead into the newly free watershed. Because of the known science–and the stated purpose of dam removal in the first place, which was to recover wild salmon–this is akin to shooting one’s self in the foot.
There’s a new threat to the Ewha as well, in the form of a proposed expansion of Puget Sound open-water salmon farms by Cooke Aquaculture. Specifically, a large net-pen facility that’s under consideration for placement in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just off the mouth of the Elwha. Like the hatchery issue, there is overwhelming science showing the damaging effects salmon farms have on wild fish populations, and yet, our state seems intent on green-lighting more fish farms for our waters. To put one off the mouth of the Elwha is, yet again, shooting one’s self in the foot. (For more information and to sign a petition to stop the fish-farm expansion, click HERE.)
But Skyla, Weston, Halo and I weren’t about to let the news get in the way of a good time or good feelings. We walked into the lower dam site and marveled at the power of the free-flowing river coursing through the very place that once blocked the current–and salmon–from passing through.
We spent the afternoon playing on the newly formed (and still growing) Elwha delta complex, with all it’s perfect juvenile salmon rearing habitat. (The beach here also happens to be ideal rearing habitat for juvenile humans.) Here, the baby salmon feed and acclimate to saltwater, and it’s always a thrill to watch the small, silver fish rising to insects on the surface of the tide pools, sloughs and channels of the new delta. As the tide pushed in, it flooded the habitat, freeing the fish to continue their migration out to sea. Some tough news for the Elwha, and yet, the simple fact of a free-flowing river is still an uplifting experience and reason to celebrate. But it’s also reason to activate, get involved, and continue the fight for the Elwha’s recovery.