No legal effect for Washington State's ban on net-pen aquaculture

The court considers Commissioner Franz's order to be "an internal policy directive," not a ban on commercial net-pen aquaculture.
Fish farm in the Salish Sea, WA. A court has ruled that Washington State's commercial net-pen aquaculture ban has no legal effect.
Fish farm in the Salish Sea, WA. A court has ruled that Washington State's commercial net-pen aquaculture ban has no legal effect. Adobe Stock.

A Thurston County Superior Court has ruled that Washington State's commercial net-pen aquaculture ban "has no legal effect." According to the ruling, the ban, which Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz announced in November 2022, is not such but is considered "an internal policy directive" to begin the regulatory process regarding commercial net pens on the state's aquatic lands.

The ruling is the Court's response to the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe's lawsuit against the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for banning net-pen aquaculture which was subsequently joined by the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance (NWAA) after the court recognized its members' interest in the Tribe's cause against the closure of Washington's fish farms.

Both rulings were handed down by the Honorable Indu Thomas, the same judge who dismissed Cooke's claims against the Washington DNR in May. The company - which has several farms in the state, including a joint venture with the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe to farm steelhead trout - is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the decision.

"Commissioner Franz overstepped her authority," NWAA says

In the statement issued by the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance to assess the court's decision, its Executive Director, Jeanne McKnight, has expressed satisfaction with the ruling. "Last Friday, October 20, we got confirmation from Thurston County Superior Court that fish farming in commercial net pens is not illegal in Washington, contrary to the inflammatory public statements made by the Commissioner of Public Lands during her November 18, 2022, press conference, where she announced that 'Washington's public aquatic lands will no longer be home to commercial finfish net pen aquaculture,'" she said.

"When NWAA intervened in the Jamestown S’Klallam complaint, we had hoped the Court would find that Commissioner Franz overstepped her authority in banning commercial net pens in state-owned aquatic lands," McKnight continued. "Instead, we got the next best thing: clarification that what looked to the entire aquaculture sector as a de-facto ban on commercial net pens in Washington is not a ban at all—just hyperbole on the part of a politically motivated agency head who is now running to be the next Washington governor."

Marine fish farming, still legal in Washington State

While welcoming the Court's clarification, NWAA's Executive Director emphasized that Commissioner Franz's public statements had "a chilling effect on the entire aquaculture sector, caused by the climate of uncertainty from DNR’s public condemnation of one of the world’s most." An uncertainty that, according to Jeanne McKnight's statement, the NWAA tried to resolve by joining the lawsuit that the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe had filed against the DNR.

"Now that we can confirm that marine fish farming is still legal in Washington State, we will continue to advocate for the development of responsible, sustainable aquaculture in the Pacific Region," she continued. Finally, McKnight thanked both Northwest Aquaculture Alliance's own attorney, Greg Hibbard, and tribal attorney, Lauren Rasmussen, for fighting "for tribal rights to grow food by means of a robust aquaculture sector in this region."

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