Cooke’s Washington State licences will not be renewed, officials say

Net-pen aquaculture in Washington State has been effectively ended, with a decision by the state’s Department of Natural Resources not to renew steelhead trout farming licences for Cooke Aquaculture.

In a statement announcing the decision, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said: “Today, we are returning our waters to wild fish and natural habitat. Today, we are freeing Puget Sound of enclosed cages.”

Washington, on the northwest Pacific coast of the USA, had already seen finfish net pen aquaculture reduced to just two sites – Cooke’s remaining steelhead trout farms in Rich Passage off Bainbridge Island and off Hope Island in Skagit Bay.

The Hope Island lease expired in March and has been in month-to-month holdover status since. The Rich Passage lease expired in November.

Canadian-owned Cooke has until December 14 to finish operations and begin removing its facilities, repairing any environmental damage.

The Washington state legislature in 2018 phased out Atlantic salmon farming, and the company has since shifted operations at its remaining leaseholds in Rich Passage and Hope Island to grow sterile steelhead trout.

Commissioner Franz is set to announce an overall policy for pen salmon aquaculture throughout Washington’s state-owned waters, this Friday, 18 November.

The DNR’s letters to Cooke confirming that the leases will not be reauthorised are highly critical of Cooke’s record in maintaining and managing the sites. In 2017 there was a major escape from the company’s Cypress Island farm following a catastrophic net-pen collapse, resulting in a fine of US $332,000 (£280,000).

A court case is still ongoing regarding Cooke’s lease at Port Angeles, which DNR alleges was operating in an unauthorised area and inadequately maintained.

The letters from the DNR also note that Cooke had relocated its Fort Ward net pen array to a new location at Orchard Rocks without first obtaining a shoreline substantial development permit.

The DNR concludes: “The inherent risks of finfish aquaculture are compounded by additional risks where, such as here, DNR lacks confidence that Cooke will consistently comply with lease mitigation requirements.

“DNR concludes that the risks to the State’s aquatic lands from renewal of Cooke’s lease on this site are high, and therefore that Cooke’s proposed renewal is not in the best interests of the State.”

The DNR claims support for its move from indigenous groups and conservation organisations.

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Steve Edwards said: “We are very pleased that Commissioner Franz rejected Cooke Aquaculture’s lease application. Removal of the existing net pen will restore full access to the Tribe’s culturally important fishing area in northern Skagit Bay. Swinomish are the People of the Salmon, 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 far too long. We look forward to the day when the Hope Island net pen facility will be a distant memory.”

“This decision is a joyous and historic victory for the recovery of wild fish, orcas, and the health of Puget Sound,” said Emma Helverson, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy.

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