Shoreline Master Program must protect our waters | Guest column

by LOVEL PRATT

San Juan Island

The SJC Council is updating the Shoreline Master Program, with hearings that began on Nov. 30. This update is this community’s opportunity to address requirements for future aquaculture operations in SJC, 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 SJC 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 SJC, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be interest in establishing them here in the future. For the most part, SJC’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 SJC 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. SJC 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 depend upon our shorelines and water views. The council’s update 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.