Washington state officials said they are ending the last two aquaculture leases for state-owned fish pens, sparking a new dispute between Cooke Aquaculture, industry supporters and its critics
The Washington Department of Natural Resources notified Cooke this week that it will not renew leases to raise steelhead in Rich Passage on Bainbridge Island and Hope Island in Skagit Bay. It’s the latest in a long-running battle since the collapse of a net pen on Cypress Island in 2017 released tens of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.
“This effort began with the termination of fish pen operations due to lease violations,” DNR Commissioner Hilary Franz said in announcing the decision. “Despite years of litigation, and a company that has fought us every step of the way, we are now able to deny lease renewals for the remaining clean sites. Today we return our waters to wild fish and natural habitat. Today we are freeing Puget Sound from closed cages.”
The denial of Cooke’s request to continue the lease gives the company 30 days to end operations and begin removing the equipment.
“This is a critical step in supporting our waters, fishermen, tribes and the native salmon we are fighting so fiercely to save,” Franz said. DNR officials plan a news conference Friday on Bainbridge Island with supporters of the decision, at which time the state’s future policy on clean-pond aquaculture will be announced, Franz said.
The decision drew a strong response from Cooke and national aquaculture advocates, who called for an independent scientific review.
“This was not a science-based decision,” said Jim Parsons, CEO of Jamestown Seafood, a joint venture between Cooke Aquaculture and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, and president of the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance.
“If that were the case, we would be looking at a very different decision,” Parsons said in a joint statement with other aquaculture groups. “In terminating Cooke’s marine netting pen leases, the DNR has ignored the best available science from NOAA, a ruling by the state Supreme Court, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Ecology in Washington, to name just a few of the countless scientists. studies from other regions showing that marine aquaculture does not harm endangered species or wild fish populations.”
Cooke’s relationship with Washington state has been on the decline since the Cypress Island pen collapsed in August 2017. State officials terminated that lease, fined Cooke $332,000 and they removed the clean pens.
In December 2017, DNR terminated Cooke’s lease in Port Angeles, arguing that Cooke was operating in an unauthorized area and failed to maintain the facility in a safe condition. Cooke challenged the order in state court where the litigation remains pending.
A resulting political backlash led the Washington State Legislature in 2018 to phase out Atlantic salmon farming in state waters. Salish tribes and conservation groups who oppose large-scale fish aquaculture in Puget Sound say the new decision protects native salmon habitat.
“The removal of the existing net pen will restore full access to the tribe’s culturally important fishing area north of Skagit Bay,” said Steve Edwards, president of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. “The Swinomish are the salmon people, and fishing has been our way of life since time immemorial. Cooke’s 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 Isle of Hope pen will be a distant memory.”
“For years, the public has overwhelmingly called for an end to this dangerous industry in our public waters,” said Emma Helverson, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, which sued Cooke in 2017 over the sinking of the net.
Farmed steelhead. Photo by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Washington’s move comes as the Biden administration is working to establish new aquaculture development zones around the US coast. Industry advocates called for a review of the state’s decision.
“Aquaculture has the ability to sustainably and affordably increase the availability of the planet’s healthiest animal protein while producing jobs—an impressive combination,” said Gavin Gibbons, the Institute’s Vice President of Communications. National Fishing “At a time when significant efforts are underway to grow the U.S. aquaculture sector, this decision is disappointing,” he said.
“The US aquaculture agricultural community recognizes the value and benefits of regulations to protect the public, the environment and agricultural operations,” commented Sebastian Belle, president of the National Aquaculture Association. “In this case where science is ignored, which is so critical to Achieving excellence in governance and finding a balance between man and nature, no one benefits. We strongly advocate an independent review by objective scientists and we hope the citizens of Puget Sound agree.”