The entrance to the Cooke Aquaculture fish pens near the southern end of Fort Ward Park. Employees’ cars had been driven out onto the pier and the gates had been padlocked.                                Terryl Asla/Kitsap News Group

The entrance to the Cooke Aquaculture fish pens near the southern end of Fort Ward Park. Employees’ cars had been driven out onto the pier and the gates had been padlocked. Terryl Asla/Kitsap News Group

Flotilla protests Rich Passage fish pens

Wild Fish Conservancy organized the “Our Sound, Our Salmon” protest to draw attention to the fish pens off Bainbridge Island’s Fort Ward Park. Cooke Aquaculture’s fish pens off Cypress Island collapsed last month, and more than 100,000 Atlantic salmon escaped into the Salish Sea.

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — Opponents to fish farming protested Sept. 16 in Rich Passage, the site of pens of non-native Atlantic salmon farmed by Cooke Aquaculture.

Wild Fish Conservancy organized the “Our Sound, Our Salmon” protest to draw attention to the fish pens off Bainbridge Island’s Fort Ward Park. Cooke Aquaculture’s fish pens off Cypress Island collapsed last month, and more than 100,000 Atlantic salmon escaped into the Salish Sea. Opponents of fish farming say those Atlantic salmon will compete with threatened and endangered native salmon stocks for food and spawning habitat.

The threats from farmed salmon go beyond large-scale escapes, Wild Fish Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee said in an earlier interview.

“The reason we chose Bainbridge was, in 2012, there was the largest IHN outbreak on the entire coast — that’s a deadly salmon virus — that spread to all three of those pens during that event, and it happened right during juvenile salmon out-migration,” Beardslee said. “It’s just things like that event, and this massive escape, these are unavoidable when you have this industry in these waters.”

Therefore, the group called for “a peaceful floating protest with one loud, clear message: that the residents of Washington will no longer accept the Atlantic salmon net pen industry endangering their public waters, waters which belong to all Washingtonians,” according to the Our Sound Our Salmon website, www.oursound-oursalmon.org/flotilla.

As it turned out, it was a well-organized and peaceful protest.

Neighbors said that about 8 a.m. Sept. 16, a security boat and guards arrived at the Cooke Aquaculture fish pens. Rather than park in the gravel lot, employees’ cars were driven out onto the wharf leading to the main office building, and the gates were chained and padlocked.

What appeared to be a new sign read “No Access Facility Personnel Only.”

Several hundred feet away, out in the water, protesters had pre-anchored a canoe that held one end of a 140-foot-long orange floating banner that read “Save our Salmon” and would be visible to any planes or media drones passing overhead.

Accidentally or purposefully, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter was anchored about half a mile away.

The stage was set.

By noon, up by the boat ramp at the north end of Fort Ward Park, hand-powered craft — kayaks, row boats and canoes — had started to gather. Nearby, one set of volunteers tried to get the dorsal fin on the giant inflatable orca to stand up, while another group tried to get it strapped on top of the cabin on their motorboat.

Meanwhile, over at the Harbor Public House Marina in Eagle Harbor, Beardslee was holding a briefing aboard the lead boat, the 50-foot-long Galactic Ice, captained by Riley Starks of Lummi Island Wild. Around 1 p.m., they got underway for the rendezvous.

By 2 p.m., most of the power boats had gathered at the rendezvous, just north of the fish pens, waiting for the kayaks before starting the flotilla parade. Several eager protesters in small power craft dashed in past the lead boat toward the fish pens and then zoomed back again.

About 2:15 p.m., Call Nichols pulled into the gravel parking lot outside the Cooke wharf with his paddle board jutting out the back window of his SUV. He had decided it made more sense to put in near the rendezvous than to paddle all the way down from up north. As he started to climb into his wet suit, he explained why he was participating in the protest.

“I’m in the oyster industry, so I actually work in aquaculture,” he said. “I’m pretty familiar with fish farming all over the country and have seen what it does to local fish populations and the effect that has on local people … We’re all inter-connected. These fish farms threaten the very relationship we have with the ocean. So I’m paddling out to join.”

It was after 3 p.m. before most of the other paddlers and rowers arrived and joined Nichols.

Finally, the signal was given and some 50 boats of all sizes lined up single file behind Galactic Ice and began a slow parade toward the pens.

The security boat, which had been tied up at the Cooke wharf, put to sea, patrolling the owners’ property.

Several Cooke employees came out to watch.

The flotilla power boats passed down through the wide channel between the main building on the wharf and the fish pens further out. Boat horns and whistles blared, signs and banners were waved and protesters whooped and hollered as they circled the fish pens.

The paddlers and rowers, some 30 strong, brought up the end of the flotilla and wisely stopped well away from the motor boats’ circling action, gathering around the floating orange sign instead.

There, they waved signs and cheered as the inflatable orca — dorsal fin proudly erect — passed grandly by, towed by another boat with a 14-foot salmon on top. Apparently there had been engine problems as well as fin problems.

Several kayakers raised a large mesh banner with the outline of a salmon and the words “PROTECT OUR SALISH SEA” in big red letters. A little after 4 p.m., the small boats clustered closer together and protesters began to chant, holler, wave signs and honk air horns as the television camera boat passed by.

Kathy Hansen, who lives nearby and had come down to the pier to watch, shared the protesters’ concern.

“I live right by the fish farm,” Hansen said. “We moved here seven years ago from Houston, Texas, so my thoughts and feelings are with them first. But what happened [in Houston] was a natural disaster. I look at this as a [man-made] disaster waiting to happen … My major concern is what are they doing to the environment? You can’t be having fish waste and fish food, plus the 30 ferries a day, the 12 fast ferries, the Nimitz, the Stennis, the submarines and everybody’s’ pleasure boats and expect it to be a zero-sum game.”

Cooke Aquaculture, which also operates Atlantic salmon farms at Cypress Island, Port Angeles, and Hope Island. According to its website, Cooke also operates fish farms in Maine, Chile, Scotland, and Spain; as well as fisheries in Alaska, Virginia, Argentina, and Uruguay.

— Terryl Asla is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at tasla@soundpublsihing.com.

Security guards watch as one the motorized vessels enters the wide channel between the wharf building and the off-shore fish pens.                                Terryl Asla/Kitsap News Group

Security guards watch as one the motorized vessels enters the wide channel between the wharf building and the off-shore fish pens. Terryl Asla/Kitsap News Group

A salmon boat tows the orca boat past the kayakers clustered around the anchored canoe holding the floating banner.                                Terryl Asla/Kitsap News Group

A salmon boat tows the orca boat past the kayakers clustered around the anchored canoe holding the floating banner. Terryl Asla/Kitsap News Group

Protesters honk, chant and wave signs for the television camera boat.                                 Terryl Asla/Kitsap News Group

Protesters honk, chant and wave signs for the television camera boat. Terryl Asla/Kitsap News Group

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