On Nov. 27, Cooke Aquaculture agreed to pay $2.75 million to settle a Clean Water Act lawsuit. A week later, on Dec. 3, a judge signed off on a record-setting $50 million settlement against Formosa Plastics in Texas.

The August 2017 catastrophic collapse of a Cooke Aquaculture salmon net pen in Puget Sound led to the escape of hundreds of thousands of farmed and infected Atlantic salmon. The Wild Fish Conservancy made moves within days to file a lawsuit against the company, claiming it had violated the Clean Water Act. The suit was formally filed in November that year.

In the days leading up to the trial, scheduled to begin on Dec. 2, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour issued summary judgments against Cooke. Those included failure to conduct required inspections of pen moorings and anchors, and failure to monitor and report escapements.

Cooke hoped to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the collapsed Cypress Island pen was closed. The judge rejected the argument, saying that because Cooke continues operations in Puget Sound, "civil penalties still serve to deter future Clean Water Act violations."

Tobias Dewhurst, a marine engineer and independent expert hired by the Wild Fish Conservancy, testified that he reviewed conditions at each farm site and determined “conditions at each of its eight sites exceeded the maximum rated conditions specified by the net pen manufacturer,” and that as a result “pens and cages operated by Cooke were at risk of failure.”

About 40 percent of the settlement funds will be paid in a series of annual payments to the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment to support the recovery of wild salmon, steelhead and killer whales. The rest will pay legal fees for the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Meanwhile, in Texas, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt today approved a record-breaking settlement against Formosa Plastics that will fund six key pollution mitigation projects near its Point Comfort, Texas, facility.

“Having the $50 million settlement go to local environmental projects feels like justice,” said plaintiff, former shrimper and NF Highliner Diane Wilson, who is represented by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “Formosa polluted Lavaca Bay and nearby waterways for years. Now it will pay for strong community projects that will improve the health and welfare of our waterways and beaches.”

Wilson and her co-plaintiffs collected and documented samples of plastic pellets and powders from local waters for years before filing their suit.

The settlement, to be paid out over five years, also requires Formosa to meet a stringent  zero-discharge standard, which means the Point Comfort facility must stop all discharge of plastics into natural waterways.

"This is a standard that citizens all over the country are fighting to get enforced in their communities," said Erin Gaines, who is representing Wilson. "Another key point is that Formosa must clean up illegally discharged plastics. This comprehensive settlement means that the natural resources in the Point Comfort area will not only be protected, they will also be revitalized.”

Funded projects will include:

  • $20 million for creating a cooperative that will revitalize depleted marine ecosystems and develop sustainable fishing, shrimping and oyster harvesting.
  • $10 million for environmental development of Green Lake park, the second largest natural lake in Texas, into an environmentally sound public park.
  • $2 million to control erosion and restore beaches at Magnolia Beach.
  • $5 million for environmental research of San Antonio and Matagorda bay systems and river deltas that feed into them.
  • $1 million to support the Nurdle (plastic pellet) Patrols at the University of Texas’s Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, and to give scholarships to allow persons throughout the gulf coast to attend Nurdle Patrol conferences. The brainchild of the reserve’s director Jace Tunnell, the Nurdle Patrols are volunteer groups that collect plastic pellets in order to document and research plastic pollution of the gulf and its shores.
  • $750,000 to the YMCA for camps for children to study and learn how to be good stewards of the local marine environment.

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Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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