Looking ahead: commercial aquaculture | Opinion

By Lovel Pratt

Special to the Journal

The San Juan County Council is updating the Shoreline Master Program, with hearings beginning on Nov. 30. This update is this community’s opportunity to address requirements for future aquaculture operations in San Juan County, including the types of commercial aquaculture we don’t yet have.

There are two types of commercial aquaculture which would not be compatible with most San Juan County shorelines: fin fish net pens (for farmed Atlantic salmon) and commercial geoduck operations. Currently there are no fin fish net pens and no commercial geoduck operations in San Juan County, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be interest in establishing them here in the future. For the most part, San Juan County’s current commercial aquaculture operations are compatible with neighboring residences. Shellfish farms in San Juan County tend to be of a type and scale that fit with our rural shorelines. This is not true for many communities in Puget Sound where single family residences on the shoreline are impacted by fin fish net pens and commercial geoduck operations. In addition to potential environmental impacts, fin fish net pens and commercial geoduck operations could impact property values. Permits for these commercial aquaculture operations don’t require ownership or the leasing of adjacent shoreline land. People buy shoreline and waterview properties in San Juan County with an investment-backed expectation that their shoreline access and marine views will remain largely intact. A geoduck operation’s PVC tubes are visually impactful, obstruct beach and water access, and there’s noise associated with the liquefaction used for harvesting. Fin fish net pen operations can include lights, noise, and odor. Both commercial operations could include vehicle traffic that use shoreline access road ends which would further impact rural neighborhoods. The draft SMP update allows commercial geoduck operations in all shoreline designations except “Port, Marina and Marine Transportation” with a conditional use permit. SJC’s critical areas could potentially justify prohibitions and buffers, but this option has not been addressed.

The draft SMP would allow fin fish net pens in rural, urban, natural, conservancy, and aquatic shoreline designations with a shoreline substantial development permit. Island County is also in the process of updating their SMP. San Juan County should adopt language similar to Island County’s:

“The county shall adopt a prohibition on new commercial fin fish net pen aquaculture operations to provide time for updated guidance addressing the protection of ecological functions and use conflicts.”

State law identifies single family residences and aquaculture (as a water dependent industrial and commercial development) as preferred uses in the shoreline, with no preference given to one or the other shoreline use. Tourism and real estate in San Juan County depend upon our beautiful shorelines and water views. The San Juan County Council’s update to the SMP should include every provision available to protect existing shoreline and waterview properties from future incompatible large-scale commercial aquaculture operations. The SMP must comply with state law and it can also protect the values and character of our islands community and this beautiful marine environment.