No more Cooke Aquaculture fish farms in Puget Sound.
That’s the message the state Department of Natural Resources delivered Monday morning when the agency decided not to renew the last of the farm fish company’s leases here.
The company’s last net pens in Puget Sound are located in Rich Passage near Bainbridge Island and Hope Island in Skagit Bay. According to DNR officials, Cooke has until Dec. 14 to stop farming steelhead and begin deconstructing his equipment.
According to letters sent from DNR to the company Monday morning, Cooke had a history of violating provisions outlined in the contracts.
Since taking over the leases in 2016, the fish farming giant had made improvements outside the lease, and at other times made them without consent, according to letters from the state.
Cooke did not immediately comment on the decision, but a representative said the company may do so later.
The decision to cut the ties ultimately stems from a spill of tens of thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon in 2017 after a net break on Cypress Island near San Juan.
At the time, the New Brunswick, Canada-based company underreported the number of fish that escaped, according to a state investigation. Cooke leaders initially blamed the spill on high tides tied to the solar eclipse. The claim was denied.
Investigators found that 263,000 of the farm’s fish escaped, not the 160,000 that Cooke told the public. Months later, more than 200,000 were still missing.
After the pen collapsed, Hillary Franz, the state commissioner of public lands, ordered inspections of Cooke’s facilities.
Cooke then lost his lease to operate his Port Angeles Atlantic salmon farm after an inspection revealed the farm was not properly maintained and was outside the lease boundaries. Cooke challenged the decision in court, but a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of state regulators.
The state legislature in 2018 passed a law that effectively eliminated net pen farming of exotic species in Washington waters. Since then, Cooke has raised steelhead.
DNR determined that Cooke’s operations could pose risks to the state’s natural environment, each of the letters states.
The 2017 incident sparked an outcry to shut down non-native fish farming in Washington, with 20 Western Washington treaty tribes leading the charge.
The escapement threatened already weak native Pacific salmon stocks and treaty fishing rights, said a 2017 statement from India’s Northwest Fisheries Commission.
“The Swinomish are salmon people, and fishing has been our way of life since time immemorial,” Swinomish Tribal Community Chairman Steve Edwards wrote in an email. “The Cooke net pens have interfered with the exercise of our treaty rights for too long. . . We look forward to the day when the installation of the Hope Island pen will be a memory distant”.
A Big Nightmare
Months after the 2017 spill, non-native fish were migrating down some rivers in the area, more than 40 miles deep in the Skagit. They swam north to British Columbia and south past Tacoma.
In the Lummi Nation, Jay Julius remembers getting out of bed and getting on a boat day after day for weeks on end in an attempt to clean up the spill. Looking back, the days blend together.
Julius, a lifelong fisherman, and others scoured the island in boats, finding pockets and bays where schools and drifters swam in confusion. The fishermen tried to follow the tide, but the fish proved difficult to find.
The fish on the farm swam in circles, just like they did in their pens. Fishermen discovered they could throw pebbles, similar to farm fish food, into the water and round them up, Julius said.
He had caught over 20,000 pounds of fish.
Fishermen collected thousands of fish in an attempt to clean up the spill as it was considered an ecological hazard.
The non-native salmon was handed out to anyone who wanted it in garbage bags. Others sat still in garbage cans.
“Obviously it was a nightmare,” he said. “Usually you’re excited to see fish. We are excited to see this amount of fish in one place. But in this case, it was just a big nightmare.”
Commercial salmon farming began in Puget Sound about 35 years ago. Atlantic salmon, the most widely farmed type of salmon in the world, was the choice of most farmers in Washington.