After one of the worst fish-farm escapes in Washington history, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has granted approval for Cooke Aquaculture to rear 1 million more Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound.
After one of the largest fish-farm escapes in history, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has approved a permit for Cooke Aquaculture to rear another 1 million Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound.
The approval stoked outrage still simmering after the catastrophic failure in August of one of Cooke’s eight Puget Sound facilities that sent a cascade of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound waters.
The permit for the company corporation was approved even as the more than 100,000 fish that escaped from Cooke’s pen at Cypress Island in the San Juan Islands continue to infiltrate Puget Sound rivers and beyond. The fish have been detected as far north as Chilliwack on the Fraser River in British Columbia and as far west as the Quinault River. The fish can be traced to the farm escape because their ear bones are marked at Cooke’s hatchery.
Gov. Jay Inslee has directed that no new permits be issued for new pens in Washington waters while the incident is being investigated. “However current laws and administrative rules do not give state regulators the authority to deny Cooke’s permit to move healthy fish into an existing net pen,” the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) stated in a Tuesday news release.
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In a prepared statement, Inslee said he had asked the company to withdraw its permit application to move 1 million juvenile Atlantic salmon from the company’s hatchery in Rochester, Thurston County, to its existing net-pen facility in Puget Sound at Clam Bay, along Rich Passage.
Several state agencies examined the company’s operations there and could not find grounds on which to deny the permit, according to the news release. The permit was granted Monday.
Tim Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, decried a “business-as-usual” response by the company and the state despite the escape.
“This ordeal created a disaster and an emergency for our tribe,” Ballew said. “We are deeply saddened that the state of Washington and this foreign corporation are willing to take a business-as-usual attitude.
“We should be putting our efforts at finding those fish that escaped rather than putting in 1 million more.”
In a letter to Inslee on Monday, lawyers at Miller, Nash, Graham & Dunn of Seattle representing Cooke Aquaculture, wrote that the permit is “not a permit for any new operation, but rather a routine permit to transfer fish from the hatchery to grow-out pens.” As such, the permit requires nothing more than proof that the fish pose no disease threat.
The company, however, did more than required, hosting inspections by state agencies of the pens at Clam Bay to document they are secure from risk of potential escape, the letter noted.
The fish being moved were hatched at the company’s facility nearly a year ago and could not be held longer; biologically, they were ready for their transition to saltwater, Cooke asserted through its lawyer in the letter.
“Cooke must continue to tend to ongoing business operations … the transfer permit it has applied for is an ordinary-course-of business requirement,” lawyer Amalia Walton for Miller Nash wrote on behalf of the company.
Inslee also had asked if the fish could be moved elsewhere, but the company claimed the only space available was at its facility in Clam Bay.
Washington is the only state on the West Coast with open-water Atlantic salmon net-pen fish farms. The permit approval comes as tribes and state lawmakers are calling for an end to aquaculture of Atlantic salmon on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.
In addition to making the wrong decision, Ballew said, the state did not adequately consult the tribes before issuing the permit. Under state law and federal court decisions, tribes are co-managers of Washington’s fish stocks, including salmon.
“I strongly feel the co-management principles were not taken into account,” said Ballew, who said the decision jeopardizes native salmon stocks.
“There could have been a better approach to looking at this permit request, we could have taken a harder look at the potential impacts for these shared waters and the tribes have not been given the time to consult.”
The fish are being stocked in the same waters where protesters against the fish-farm escape just staged a protest flotilla against continuation of Atlantic salmon net-pen farming in Puget Sound.
The Cypress Island fish spill remains under state investigation.
Founded in 1985 by one family with 5,000 fish in New Brunswick, Canada, Cooke Aquaculture is the largest Atlantic salmon farming operation in North America, with about $1.8 billion in annual sales — including more than $31 million in Washington, where Cooke has 80 employees.
It bought its Washington farms just over a year ago from Icicle Seafoods.
The company was fully aware the Cypress Island farm that failed was in need of total replacement, a permit application by Cooke employees to the state Department of Ecology last February shows.
“The existing steel net pen structure has been in service for approximately 16 years in the marine environment and is due for complete replacement,” the company wrote in its application. “Corrosion on the metal walkway grating and substructures is beginning to accelerate. The metal hinge joints in some areas are showing signs of excess wear. Complete replacement of the floating steel net-pen structure with a newly manufactured one is considered best management practice.
“Periodic replacement of the existing net-pen structure with a newly manufactured structure is necessary in order to maintain a safe working platform for the farm employees and to ensure the safe containment of the cultivated fish stocks at the facility.”
The company also sought to reorient the direction of the farm to align with the prevailing current, to reduce drag loads on the structure.
However, the company also stated it did not intend to begin its $1.4 million, five-month project to replace the farm until September, 2017, after it took its harvest of the 305,000, 8- to 10-pound Atlantic salmon from the facility in September. Ecology did not object.
The company made emergency repairs to the facility in July after it started to drift. A month later, the farm failed catastrophically, sending thousands of the invasive Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound waters.
The company initially blamed the failure on unusually high tides coincident with a solar eclipse that occurred days later. It also initially estimated the fish escape at about 4,500 animals, and declared the event primarily a business loss.
Anger over the event spread all the way to British Columbia, where First Nations are staging actions of their own against fish farms there because of pollution.
Nell Halse, spokeswoman for Cooke, said in an email to The Seattle Times that the company is investigating the cause of the Cypress Island escape and will continue its efforts to make sure nothing like it ever happens again.
Cooke also will work with the state fish and wildlife department, she wrote, to ensure that lessons learned in the Cypress Island incident are incorporated in a fish escape plan for its operations expected to be in place by March 30, 2018.