A year ago, Cooke Aquaculture was a mainstay business in Washington state waters. The company had made a significant investment in nine local salmon farming sites when it purchased Icicle Seafood’s assets in 2016. As of Friday, March 2, the company’s open-ocean Atlantic salmon net pens are banned in state waters, to be phased out by 2025.

The impetus for the ban is the catastrophic failure of a pen near Cypress Island, Wash., on Sunday, Aug. 20. The pen contained 305,000 Atlantic salmon that were just about ready for market at 10 pounds each, making for more than 3 million pounds of invasive fish teeming at the edges of wild salmon territory.

In February, both houses of the state Legislature passed bills banning the practice of salmon pen farming, and Gov. Jay Inslee openly supported the legislation. On Friday, the Washington house and senate negotiated the discrepancies in those bills to finalize a ban they could pass to the governor’s desk. The bipartisan Senate vote was 31-16.

Before the final votes, Cooke Aquaculture CEO and Founder Glen Cooke made last-minute appeals to state lawmakers in person.  Last Wednesday, a collective of leading marine scientists penned an open letter to the Legislature in defense of the salmon farming industry.

Indeed, many stakeholders see the ban as a punitive response to a company that appeared to shirk its own responsibility in the immediate aftermath of the spill. However, the result is that it closes the opportunity entirely — not just to Cooke Aquaculture.

Though the response to ban an entire industry may seem extreme, the perfect storm of events leading up to the ban created extraordinary circumstances. Local response to the spill was considerably more swift and strong than the eclipse high tides on which the company first blamed the collapse.

As it turns out, locals aren’t particularly keen on salmon pens, especially cultivating a non-native species. The initial response blaming the breach on the eclipse tides, then dismissing public concerns for potential damage served to fan the flames of opposition that smoldered in the midst of the summer salmon fishing season. Cooke had an uphill battle from that moment on, and the circumstances simply wouldn’t been in the company’s favor for the remainder of the run up to the vote.

Within a week of the breach, Inslee instructed the state Department of Ecology to put a hold on all permits for new mariculture, including net pens.

“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon,” Inslee said.

State officials established a response team, including members of the departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology, the Office of the Governor and state Emergency Management Division. The state also committed to investigating all of the company’s local net pens.

On Sept. 16, a functioning (but empty) Cooke pen in Puget Sound was the scene of a protest flotilla. Organizers said the protest was planned before the spill, though it was well timed, to decry three decades of salmon farming in Puget Sound.

In what could be seen either as a brazen move considering the political climate or a justifiable business decision, Cooke Aquaculture moved in October to deposit another 1 million juvenile salmon from its hatcheries to the same empty pen highlighted by the protest.

Inslee requested that the company withdraw its proposal to add invasive salmon to Puget Sound while permitting was on hold. Cooke, however, stood by its right to make full use of its leases, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife acknowledged it did not have the authority to deny use of an existing permit, given the pen passed all inspections.

On Nov. 13, the Wild Fish Conservancy, organizer of the protest, filed a lawsuit against Cooke Aquaculture Pacific in response to the Cypress Island spill.

“Escaped non-native fish pose predation and disease threats to juvenile salmon and steelhead rearing in nearshore habitats in Puget Sound,” said Nick Gayeski, fisheries scientist at the conservancy. “They also pose threats to adult wild salmon and steelhead by competing for spawning habitat and potentially by establishing self-sustaining populations in Puget Sound rivers as they have been documented to have done on Vancouver Island.”

In late December, the state terminated Cooke’s salmon pen lease in Port Angeles on the grounds that it posed a public and environmental risk.

Hilary Franz, the state’s commissioner of public lands, said the farm site — which included one large pen with 14 cages and one small pen with six cages — was operating outside of the boundaries of its lease agreement and causing a navigation hazard.

In late January 2018, the state’s joint team of investigators released a report claiming Cooke Aquaculture tried to cover up the scale of the collapse and accusing the company of negligence in the maintenance of its fish pens and in underestimating the number of non-native fish that had escaped.

“The [fish farm] collapse was not the result of natural causes,” said Franz. “Cooke’s disregard caused this disaster and recklessly put our state’s aquatic ecosystem at risk.”

Cooke responded immediately to the report, stating that it was flawed and the number of escaped salmon was miscalculated. Joel Richardson, Cooke’s vice president of public relations, said in a statement that Cooke was shut out of the investigative process, leading to “an inaccurate and misleading document.” Cooke reported to state agencies that 160,000 salmon had escaped, whereas investigators reported the number was closer to 263,000. Fewer than 60,000 were caught. The fate of the remaining 100,000 to 200,000 is unknown. After the spill, Atlantic salmon were found more than 42 miles upstream in the Skagit River.

The Canadian aquaculture firm was also fined $322,000 for violating state water quality standards.

Joel Richardson, Cooke’s vice president for public relations, reportedly told lawmakers the company would sue the state to recover its $76 million investment.

Read more in the Pacific Top Story of our April Yearbook issue.

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

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