Washington’s decision to shut down Cooke Aquaculture’s Port Angeles fish farm is being contested in a lawsuit by the Canadian fish farming corporation.
Cooke Aquaculture Pacific has filed a lawsuit seeking to continue running its Atlantic salmon farm in Port Angeles.
The suit, filed Thursday in Clallam County Superior Court, declares that Hilary Franz, commissioner of public lands, erred in revoking the company’s lease to operate the Port Angeles farm. Franz on Dec. 15 demanded Cooke shut down the farm and remove the fish and equipment. There are nearly 700,000 Atlantic salmon at the farm.
Franz in her notice of default to Cooke said the farm is outside its legal lease boundaries — that anchor chains were damaged or broken, and Styrofoam not correctly encapsulated to prevent it from crumbling into the water. The farm is positioned inside the Ediz Hook, in a busy navigation area, and also poses a navigation hazard, Franz said.
Franz fired back against the appeal Friday, saying in a prepared statement, “The basis for terminating Cooke Aquaculture’s lease at its Port Angeles facility was made clear to the company and the public. My team will vigorously defend the termination against this meritless lawsuit.
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“I encourage Cooke Aquaculture to drop this lawsuit and work cooperatively with the Department of Natural Resources to safely close down the facility.”
In its appeal, Cooke declared the position of the farm has been long known by previous commissioners at DNR, and that repairs to the farm were already completed or underway when the notice of default was issued.
“You can imagine our surprise when our landlord decides they want to terminate our lease a year in advance of when those fish are to be harvested when the items they identified were updated, or in the process of being updated,” Joel Richardson, vice president of public relations for Cooke, said in a phone interview Friday.
The company assumes the decision was based on misinformation or miscommunication of the facts and history of the site, Richardson said.
Cooke wants the lease reinstated, and its operations to be allowed to continue.
Meanwhile, bills to shut down Cooke’s operations in Washington are headed to consideration in Olympia. A bill that would deny renewal of all of Cooke’s leases as they end will be heard at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday before the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee in Senate Hearing Room 3 in the J.A. Cherberg Building. Another bill would terminate all the leases upon passage and signature by the governor.
Cooke’s Atlantic salmon farms burst into public awareness last August, when another one of its farms at Cypress Island fell apart, releasing more than 160,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound just as Pacific salmon were heading to their home waters to spawn. More than 105,000 of the fish are still unaccounted for.
Upper Skagit tribal members were still catching Cooke’s Atlantic salmon on the lam 54 miles up the Skagit River last month.
Cooke has repeatedly stated the fish pose no risk and are primarily a business loss for the company. But tribes and conservationists have rallied to shut the net pens down to protect Puget Sound, an already imperiled ecosystem, home to many threatened and endangered species — including Puget Sound chinook.
In its appeal, Cooke called the escape a “cause célèbre” seized on by critics opposed to Atlantic salmon farming. The escape and subsequent lease default have dented the company’s credibility to safely operate its net-pen farms in an area where it wants to expand. California and Alaska already ban Atlantic salmon net pens, and Oregon has no net-pen operations.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, prime sponsor of the bill to phase out the leases for the farms, said “there is no place for invasive-species net pen aquaculture in Washington.”
Cooke has eight farms in Washington, counting the Port Angeles operation, purchased in June 2016 from Icicle seafoods in an acquisition valued at $70 million, according to the lawsuit.
The Port Angeles farm includes a six-cage unit of net pens and a 14-cage unit of net pens in the Port Angeles harbor. The fish there were not scheduled to be harvested until late 2018 at the earliest, and the company’s investment in the fish stands at $4.5 million, according to the lawsuit.
Cooke wants to meet with Department of Natural Resources officials to discuss the lease termination, but filed the lawsuit now to protect its legal options, Richardson stated in the company’s news release.
The multibillion-dollar, privately held, family-owned company is based in New Brunswick, Canada, and is one of the world’s largest farmers of Atlantic salmon, operating in several countries.