Fish Farm Harm

Court upholds loss of net pen lease 
in Port Angeles

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A lease for a farmed fish operation in the Salish Sea was properly terminated, a Washington court rules.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy rejected Cooke Aquaculture’s challenge to the Department of Natural Resources’ termination of Cooke’s lease in Port Angeles. The agency noted Cooke Aquaculture Pacific was operating outside of its boundaries and failing to maintain the facility in a safe condition as cause for the termination.

In December of 2017, DNR sent a letter notifying Cooke that the company was in default of its lease and the lease was terminated. The agency described the basis for that decision. Cooke appealed DNR’s decision to terminate the Port Angeles lease. That appeal was struck down last week by Judge Murphy.

The review was prompted after a net pen at Cooke’s Cypress Island fish farm collapsed in August of 2017, releasing hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. DNR terminated the Cypress Island lease and investigated other company net pen operations in Puget Sound.

The court found DNR’s termination of the Port Angeles lease was well supported and not arbitrary or capricious. The company said it would continue to appeal the Port Angeles lease ruling.

Hilary Franz, commissioner of public lands for the state DNR, terminated the lease held by Cooke Aquaculture at the Port Angeles net pen site in December 2017.

Franz called Cooke’s lawsuit “baseless” in a statement:

“Thank you to Judge Murphy for upholding the right of the Department of Natural Resources to hold accountable a company that failed to operate safely and comply with the terms of its lease. My duty is to ensure that no company endangers the health of Washington’s waters, which support our culture, economy, and native salmon and orcas. It is a privilege, not a right, to do business on public waters,” Franz noted.

The inspection by DNR of the Port Angeles facility was one of many made at each of Cooke’s pens after a collapse of the company’s Atlantic salmon net-pen farm at Cypress Island in August 2017. The lease for the Cypress Island farm also has been terminated by DNR and Cooke’s appeal of that termination is pending in Superior Court.

In an investigation by three state agencies following the Cypress Island incident Cooke was found to be negligent in its operations and to have misled its regulators about both the cause of the event and the scope of it. Cooke disputed the findings of the state’s investigation.

After the net-pen break the state Legislature in 2018 passed a law that phased out net pen farming of exotic species such as Atlantic salmon in Washington waters by 2025.

Cooke responded with plans to farm only native species. Cooke’s appeal of the Cypress Island lease termination is still pending in the superior court.

Even if Cooke prevails on appeal, the company still needs approval from DNR to allow the company to complete their plan to farm steelhead or black cod at the pen. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife granted approval for Cooke’s steelhead plans last month at facilities where the company has valid leases; however, the current lease for the Port Angeles pen is for farming Atlantic salmon and “for no other purpose,” the lease states.

“We’ve worked tirelessly to modernize the existing enclosed net pen farming facilities which we acquired from a previous owner in 2016,” Cooke spokesman Joel Richardson said in a statement. “We have also been working together with the state regulatory agencies as well as progressive partners in the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe to rear Northwest native rainbow trout [steelhead] in Port Angeles Harbor.“

In November, the company agreed to a $2.75 million settlement filed by Wild Fish Conservancy as a result of the collapse of Cooke’s Cypress Island net pen. Under the terms of the agreement, the funds will go to environmental projects to protect wild salmon and killer whales in Puget Sound.

“We understand that our relationship with the environment is vital to producing top quality seafood,” Richardson said after the company agreed to a similar settlement of $332,000 with the state Department of Ecology. “Cooke Aquaculture Pacific will continue to work with local communities, tribes and regulators, and we are investing in upgrading operations and equipment. We view this as a significant component of our corporate social responsibility and we are committed to farming sustainably in Washington state as we do in other locations globally.”

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