Editor’s note: Updated Tuesday, November 15, 10:40 a.m. in 6th, 7th and 8th paragraphs.
Washington’s Department of Natural Resources says it won’t renew the last two netpen leases for a firm raising sterile steelhead over state-owned aquatic lands.
“Today, we are returning our waters to wild fish and natural habitat. Today, we are freeing Puget Sound of enclosed cages,” stated Hilary Franz, state Commissioner of Public Lands, in a press release.
An official announcement is expected Friday, according to DNR, but the news has also been reported in The Seattle Times.
Franz termed ending the last leases – one in Rich Passage near Bremerton and Hope Island near Mount Vernon – “a critical step to support our waters, fishermen, tribes, and the native salmon that we are so ferociously fighting to save.”
Per the press release, Cooke Aquaculture has until December 14 to “finish operations and begin removing its facilities and repairing any environmental damage.”
It didn’t appear that Cooke, based in New Brunswick, Canada, had an immediate comment on the news on Monday, but on Tuesday morning it fired off a lengthy rebuttal of Franz’s and DNR’s decision, calling it “perplexing at best, and punitive at worst.”
“Regulators and policymakers must responsibly follow the science and judicial precedents in making key decisions regarding marine aquaculture, which we do not believe was the case in this instance,” Cooke said.
“We were surprised by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz’s decision. Over the past five years, Cooke has worked to foster productive working relationships with Tribes, DNR staff, and other state agencies. A recent Federal Biological Opinion and a recent Washington Supreme Court decision both reaffirm the state of the science that fish farming does not have an adverse impact on the environment. All of these factors are contrary to DNR’s decision to not renew our leases,” the company added.
Cooke’s Cypress Island netpen, acquired the previous year from Icicle Seafoods, infamously collapsed in August 2017 due to strong tides, allowing tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon to escape and providing a temporary fishing windfall and a cleanup pain in the butt. Cooke was fined $332,000 and the pens were taken out the next year.
The company’s operations have been a target for state regulators, tribal entities and NGOs ever since, and in fact beforehand as well, due to concerns about the impact of netpens on the environment and native fish stocks. After the 2017 disaster, the state legislature banned raising nonnative fish in netpens, so Cooke switched to sterile steelhead.
“We are very pleased that Commissioner Franz rejected Cooke Aquaculture’s lease application,” stated Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Steve Edwards in the same press release. “Removal of the existing net pen will restore full access to the Tribe’s culturally important fishing area in northern Skagit Bay. Swinomish are the People of the Salmon, and fishing has been our way of life since time immemorial. Cooke’s net pens have interfered with the exercise of our treaty rights for far too long. We look forward to the day when the Hope Island net pen facility will be a distant memory.”
Last year, the US Army Corps of Engineers denied WDFW a permit to build a small single-lane boat ramp at the site of an old fishing resort at Puget Sound’s Point No Point, saying it would “result in an impermissible abrogation” of a local tribe’s treaty fishing rights.