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Cooke Disputes Washington Agencies’ Report On Netpen Escapee Numbers

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM COOKE AQAUCULTURE

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific on Tuesday criticized the state’s multi-agency draft report on the Cypress Island net pen collapse, pointing out numerous factual inaccuracies that led investigators to leap to erroneous conclusions.

COOKE AQUACULTURE RESPONDED TO TODAY’S STATE AGENCY FINAL REPORT WITH A 13-PAGE LETTER DISPUTING SOME ELEMENTS. (COOKE AQUACULTURE)

“Cooke Aquaculture was shut out of this investigation by the state agencies,” said Joel Richardson, vice president of public relations at Cooke, Inc. “As a result, investigators with limited experience in aquaculture or net-pen operations have produced an inaccurate and misleading document that appears to be intended to fuel the push by aquaculture opponents to put Cooke out of business in Washington state.”

Notably, the state accused Cooke of overestimating the number of fish it recovered from the collapsed nets. In fact, Cooke employees counted each fish as it was recovered under the state’s supervision. The report’s estimate, meanwhile, was based on a flawed estimate of the average weight of the recovered fish.

The report, “2017 Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Net Pen Failure: An Investigation and Review” was compiled by the state’s Ecology, Fish & Wildlife, and Natural Resources departments. The final report is slated for release today at an 11 a.m. news conference timed to influence the Legislature’s ongoing deliberations about bills related to aquaculture, including proposals that would effectively ban salmon farming in Washington.

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific was given just three days to provide feedback on a 266-page draft – a review period that ran from Friday to Monday – and was instructed not to dispute the report’s analysis or conclusions. Today’s press conference was announced three hours after the agencies received Cooke’s comments.

“We provided substantive comment back to the agencies under an unfairly brief timeline to address the report’s major factual errors and omissions about what occurred at our facility last August,” said Richardson. “We cooperated fully with the investigation and stood ready to provide expertise, background and context to help the investigators in their work. Unfortunately, we don’t believe the public or lawmakers are getting a complete and accurate picture from this report.”

The after-the-fact questioning of Cooke’s accounting of fish removed from the net pen structure is the most egregious – but not only – example of the report’s inaccuracy.

“The same people that supervised and approved the counting of the fish created this new analysis, based on back-of-the-envelope math involving the capacity of a tender vessel and the ridiculous notion that the recovered fish weighed 7 pounds apiece,” Richardson said. “As the photographs in the report itself show, many of the fish were severely damaged by the time they were recovered and would have been far lighter.”

Another example of the report’s inaccuracy is the blanket assumptions about the condition of the nets.

“We acknowledge that the site fell behind in net hygiene prior to the mooring failures in July. However, Cooke provided the investigators extensive documentation of the washing performed at Site 2 after the July incident,” Richardson explained. “Although the report is correct that mussels were present in the bottom of the nets, the investigative panel lacked the expertise to make that judgment about the relationship between fouling and drag and did not rely upon alternate expertise when forming the conclusions reflected in the report.”

Cooke endeavoured to cooperate with the investigation from its inception but was excluded from meaningful participation after only a few weeks. While Cooke was excluded, two Native American tribes which have repeatedly called for the ban of Cooke’s operations were given full access to the process and allowed to provide comments and observations during the deliberations.

“Excluding Cooke but including net-pen opponents stacks the deck against Cooke,” said Richardson. “Tribes, lawmakers, Cooke, the public – we all deserve to know the truth, and this report should be driven by a full and accurate understanding of the facts. Unfortunately, this document is neither accurate nor objective.”

Cooke responded to the draft report on Monday morning with a thirteen-page letter highlighting its glaring inaccuracies. Slightly more than three hours later, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz called today’s news conference, demonstrating that the agencies never intended to evaluate or respond to Cooke’s legitimate concerns.

State Agencies Pin Atlantic Salmon Netpen Collapse On ‘Cooke’s Negligence’

THE FOLLOWING IS A JOINT PRESS RELEASE FROM THE WASHINGTON DEPARTMENTS OF ECOLOGY, FISH AND WILDLIFE AND NATURAL RESOURCES

State investigators have determined that an excessive buildup of mussels and other marine organisms on nets – caused by Cooke Aquaculture’s failure to properly clean them – led to the August 19 collapse of the company’s net pen at Cypress Island.

THE COVER OF THE THREE STATE AGENCIES’ FINAL 120-PAGE REPORT ON THE CAUSE OF THE AUG. 2017 NETPEN COLLAPSE SHOWS THE COOKE AQUACULTURE FACILITY. (DOE, DFW, DNR)

An investigative report – authored by the departments of Natural Resources (DNR), Ecology, and Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) – found that 110 tons of mussels and plants had accumulated on the nets before the incident. The report was released today at a news conference in Olympia.

The investigation determined that tidal currents pushing against the tremendous mass of organisms on the nets overwhelmed the pen’s mooring system and crushed the pen.

Extensive corrosion of the net pen structure also contributed to the collapse.

In addition, the agencies identified shortcomings in engineering practices that likely contributed to the failure.

Properly designed and maintained net pens would have withstood the tidal currents of August 19.

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

“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.”

STATE AGENCIES SAY THAT AROUND A QUARTER MILLION ATLANTIC SALMON LIKELY ESCAPED FROM THE DAMAGED NETPENS. SOME ARE STILL BEING CAUGHT, THIS ONE BY ERIC BELL ON THE SKYKOMISH RIVER AT SULTAN ON JANUARY 8. (ERIC BELL)

“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,” said Amy Windrope, WDFW’s north Puget Sound regional director.

Growth of mussels and other marine organisms on nets – called “biofouling” – is documented in state agency videos that show a “rain” of mussels falling off nets as debris from the collapse was removed.

The severe biofouling produced 110 tons of material – an average of 11 tons per net.

Cooke’s Failure to Act

Prior to the collapse, Cooke was aware of both the excessive biofouling and the poor condition of the facility.

The report details how Cooke didn’t follow its net pen cleaning schedule when broken net washers were not repaired or replaced. This allowed mussels to accumulate on the nets, which increased the drag from currents and added pressure to the structure.

Cooke also failed to take necessary precautions after the net pens were moved out of position in July when strong currents broke ten mooring points.

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.”

Nevertheless, after the July incident, Cooke considered, but did not:

  • Replace the biofouled nets,
  • Begin their salmon harvest early, or
  • Increase monitoring of the net pens and have a tug on standby when strong currents were again expected on August 19.

The report notes that state agencies did not investigate the July incident because they received incomplete and misleading information from Cooke.

More Salmon Escaped Than Cooke Reported

The report also found that Cooke misrepresented the number of fish it harvested when the pen collapsed. According to the report:

  • There were 305,000 fish in the net pen prior to failure.
  • Cooke reported harvesting/extracting 145,000 fish from the collapsed net pen.
  • The investigation concluded that Cooke could only have extracted between 42,000 and 62,000 fish.
  • Therefore, between 243,000 and 263,000 fish actually escaped. Previous estimates, based on Cooke’s reports, put the number of escaped fish at 160,000.
  • Of the escaped fish, 57,000 have been caught.
  • Between 186,000 and 206,000 Atlantic salmon remain unaccounted for.

The report concludes that monitoring through the winter and next fall’s salmon run season will be critical to knowing if any escaped Atlantic salmon remain in Washington’s waters and if they are reproducing.

Commissioner Franz is currently reviewing the report and will make an announcement about the future of the Cypress Island facility in the coming days.

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.

This multi-agency report included information collected during and after the incident, interviews with Cooke staff, and an engineering review of the failure.

More documents and information is available at www.dnr.wa.gov/atlanticsalmon

Agency OKs Moving Atlantic Salmon Smolts Into Bainbridge Netpen

A month and a half after a commercial netpen failed elsewhere in Puget Sound, state regulators have approved a shipment of 1 million young Atlantic salmon into another floating enclosure here.

WDFW says that Cooke Aquaculture’s facilities in the Bremerton area’s Rich Passage — the site of a protest flotilla in mid-September — were inspected by the Departments of Ecology and Natural Resources and “met structural, water quality, and fish health requirements.”

FARMED ATLANTIC SALMON FROM NORWAY OFFERED FOR SALE AT THE SHORELINE COSTCO RECENTLY; IT WAS PUT BACK IN THE COLD CASE IN HOPES THE EDITOR WOULD CATCH A COHO FOR DINNER INSTEAD. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The agency issued a transportation permit to the company late Monday.

While Governor Jay Inslee has banned permitting new netpens during investigations into why the international conglomerate’s Cypress Island operation broke up in mid-August — there are indications of aging equipment due to be replaced — state laws didn’t preclude moving the “healthy” 12- to 16-month-old fish into another enclosure, according to WDFW.

Cooke had applied in late August to transport the Atlantics from its rearing ponds in Rochester south of Olympia to Clam Bay, even as efforts to capture their 160,000 or so 8- to 10-pound adult escapees were ongoing in the San Juans.

A press release from the Governor’s Office said that Inslee is “very concerned” about the transfer, and called it “disappointing and frustrating” in light of August’s events.

He said his office had asked Cooke to withdraw the permit application “for our tribes, for our citizens, for our environment and for the industry’s long-term prospects.”

Around 305,000 of the market fish were being finished in the Cypress netpens this summer, and 140,000 were recovered inside them after the failure.

Through last week tribal fishermen have netted around 50,000, while hook-and-line anglers reported catching nearly 1,950, with another 3,000 or so caught by nontribal commercial fishermen.

This isn’t to say Atlantics don’t pale in comparison — and in more ways than one — to native Pacific salmon, but the breakout led to numerous wild claims about the fish.

A Sept. 11 initial assessment and Sept. 14 update found Cooke’s fish were “healthy” when the incident occurred, weren’t faring well in Puget Sound based on signs of anorexia, the stomachs of tribally sampled fish were “empty” and no signs of fish pathogens had been found in salmon recovered early on.

There was, however, an interesting note in that report: “Necropsy findings indicate an active inflammatory process of unknown origin originating in the gastrointestinal tract in the later September capture group.”

Neither large escapes from netpens in the 1990s nor directed stocking efforts in the 1980s resulted in breeding populations of the nonnative salmon in Puget Sound rivers.

Cooke will move the young Atlantics from the hatchery to netpen through the fall, according to WDFW, and they will be grown there until mid- to late 2019 before they are harvested.

Editor’s note: An earlier version reported the age of the Atlantics being moved from rearing ponds to Clam Bay as 2 years old, but subsequent information has come in that they will be a year to 16 months old.