- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - The Wild Fish Conservancy filed a lawsuit Wednesday against federal environmental and fisheries managers for allowing commercial salmon farms in Puget Sound.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle says that infectious viruses in salmon farms are threatening wild fish in the region.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 2011 that commercial salmon farms are not likely to have an adverse effect on wild salmon, the lawsuit said.

But the following year, it said, there was an outbreak of an infectious virus at a commercial salmon farm at the south end of Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. The outbreak occurred while wild juvenile salmon were migrating through the area and likely had a significant impact on the wild fish, the group said.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would force federal officials to reconsider commercial salmon farms in Puget Sound in light of the outbreak.

“Atlantic salmon feed lots in the open waters of Puget Sound pose an unacceptable health risk to ESA-listed (Endangered Species Act-listed) wild salmon in Puget Sound,” Kurt Beardslee, the executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, said in a statement. “By not fully evaluating the impacts of these farms, EPA and NMFS are in clear violation of the Endangered Species Act.”

EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Skadowski said late Wednesday that they were still reviewing the lawsuit and did not have a comment. Katherine Brogan, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division, said in an email that the agency does not discuss ongoing litigation.

The Puget Sound Chinook salmon and the Hood Canal summer-run chum salmon are listed as endangered species, and federal fisheries managers have designated critical habitat for these species, the group said.

Commercial salmon farms keep fish in floating net pens. At present, eight Atlantic salmon net-pen facilities are operating in Puget Sound. They produce more than 10 million pounds of salmon annually, the lawsuit said.

Three are located near Deepwater Bay of Cypress Island north of Anacortes; three are south of Bainbridge Island; one is northeast of Port Angeles Harbor; and one is in Skagit Bay.

The facilities are considered “point sources of pollution” under the Clean Water Act, and therefore require permits to operate. All eight of the Puget Sound farms have secured these permits.

The farms are operated by Icicle Seafoods. The company declined to comment on the lawsuit. On its website, the company says: “We pay careful attention to feeding efficiency, site security and fish health and use no hormones of any kind.”

The EPA updated its water quality standards for the salmon farms in 2010, saying the facilities are not likely to harm the endangered species or their habitat. The marine fisheries agency agreed in 2011.

But the conservancy group says the two agencies relied on outdated reports that suggest the farms pose low risks to the Puget Sound salmon.

In 2012, there was an outbreak of infectious hemotopoietic necrosis virus, or IHNV, in three of the farms — the Orchard Rocks, Fort Ward and Clam Bay facilities, the group said.

While the virus likely arose from wild salmon, the high densities in the net pens artificially elevated the outbreak.

The three infected pens are located in wild salmon habitat, and the outbreak occurred in April and May, when juvenile Chinook salmon emigration neared its peak.

The conservancy group is asking the court to find that the agencies’ findings were unlawful and seeks an injunction requiring the agencies to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

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Follow Martha Bellisle at https://twitter.com/marthabellisle

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