Net Pens 101

New report condemns farmed fish escape

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific underrepresented the scope of an Atlantic salmon net-pen spill at its Cypress Island farm last August and misled the public and regulators about the cause, according to a new report released by state investigators.

The investigation found that Cooke misrepresented the number of fish that escaped, and did not do essential maintenance at its farm, causing the escape.

“Clean nets are Net Pens 101,” Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, a Democrat from Sequim, said of the reported cause of the collapse. “If this company was failing at the most basic, most obvious level of maintenance, then it gives me pause about their commitment to running this kind of operation.”

The company also misled agencies about the seriousness and cause of an earlier mishap at the farm in July. As a result, state agencies did not investigate Cooke’s operations sooner, investigators found.

“The collapse was not the result of natural causes,” said Hilary Franz, state commissioner of public lands. “Cooke’s disregard caused this disaster and recklessly put our state’s aquatic ecosystem at risk.”

The report was released at a news conference in Olympia by the state Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Department of Natural Resources. The report is the result of a review begun last September by an investigative panel of experts from the three agencies probing the breakup of one of three net-pen farms Cooke Aquaculture operates near Cypress Island last August, and an earlier incident at the same farm in July.

In December, DNR terminated Cooke’s lease of state aquatic lands in Port Angeles, citing a failure to maintain the facility in a safe condition.

Ecology intends to take enforcement action against Cooke Aquaculture for violating Washington’s water quality laws.

“The results of our investigative report clearly show a significant violation of Washington’s water quality laws,” said Ecology Director Maia Bellon. “Cooke Aquaculture could have prevented this failure.”

 “Cooke made this situation even more difficult by under-reporting the number of fish that escaped during the net-pen collapse, and over-reporting the number it recovered afterward,” agreed Amy Windrope, WDFW’s north Puget Sound regional director.

Cooke called the report on escape full of “factual inaccuracies,” but the report details how Cooke didn’t follow its net-pen cleaning schedule when broken net washers were not repaired or replaced. Cooke also failed to take necessary precautions after the net pens were moved out of position in July when strong currents broke 10 mooring points, agencies found.

Cooke documents show that after the July incident, the company had serious concerns about the facility. An internal company email stated, “We almost lost the farm.”
Lawmakers in Olympia—considering the future of aquaculture in Washington’s waters—praised the report and condemned the conditions that released as many as 205,800 fish into Puget Sound, more than double even Cooke’s revised estimates of about 100,000 fish.

“This sort of negligent, untruthful behavior is unacceptable for any corporation in Washington state,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, the Orcas Island Democrat. “Especially a company that can have such dire consequences to our environment and our economy when things go wrong. I am disappointed with the lack of inspection and follow through by the Department of Natural Resources.”

“There was opportunity over the summer to respond to issues at the facility, but that did not occur,” observed Sen. Maralyn Chase (D-Edmonds). “Common sense should have come into play, and the facility should have taken steps to avoid this catastrophic failure that put the health of the Puget Sound at risk.”

“This report confirms much of what we learned last summer—our public waters were compromised by a company that failed to protect the Puget Sound ecosystem and by state agencies that did not provide proper oversight,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island). “Our state’s natural resources are too fragile to withstand this level of carelessness.”

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