Cooke Aquaculture says the decision by the Washington Department of Natural Resources not to renew the company’s steelhead trout farming licences is out of line with both science and judicial precedent.
Earlier this week Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands for Washington State announced that licences for the last two finfish farm sites in the state, Rich Passage off Bainbridge Island and off Hope Island in Skagit Bay, would not be renewed. She said: “Today, we are returning our waters to wild fish and natural habitat. Today, we are freeing Puget Sound of enclosed cages.”
Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, which operates the sites, said it was “disappointed” with the decision. The company added that in 2018 Washington State, on the north west Pacific coast of the USA, had banned the farming of non-native fish such as Atlantic salmon but the state legislature had explicitly allowed for the farming of native species, including steelhead trout.
The company’s statement noted that, in a landmark opinion filed in January 2022, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously rejected the arguments of a group of environmental organizations and upheld a permit granted to Cooke Aquaculture Pacific by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (“WDFW”) for the farming of Pacific steelhead trout.
The WDFW permit allowed for the farming of female, triploid (sterile) steelhead trout which, even if they escaped, would not be able to interbreed with wild fish.
Cooke also argues that a report published in 2022 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), found that finfish farming in Puget Sound in Washington State is “not likely to jeopardize the continued existence” of Puget Sound and/or Georgia Basin species, including Chinook salmon, Puget Sound steelhead, Hood Canal summer-run chum, yelloweye rockfish, or bocaccio.
The NOAA report said farming is “not likely to result in the destruction or adverse modification of the designated critical habitats for any of the listed species.”
Cooke has also challenged the argument that Native American salmon fisheries would be at risk from salmon farming. The statement said: “Cooke has continued to listen and do tribal outreach including hosting tribal tours on our Washington farms to understand their concerns. Through listening, we understand better than ever the importance of salmon to tribes in Western Washington and believe fish farming can be compatible with and supportive of the tribal goal of having wild fish for harvest for generations to come.”
The company added that it had been in talks with tribes in Washington regarding integrating a wild salmon restocking programme into its production, enabling wild smolts to grow bigger in pens and therefore enhancing their survival chances once released.
The statement concluded: “From an animal welfare perspective, with this decision, Commissioner Franz is forcing Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to kill 332,000 juvenile steelhead that were planned to be stocked at Rich Passage and Hope Island in 2023. This is a tragic outcome for fish that should have been healthy, sustainable food for our communities.”