The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has ended the remaining two finfish net pen aquaculture leases on Washington’s state-owned aquatic lands.
DNR officials informed Cooke Aquaculture that the agency will not renew expired leases for the two remaining finfish net pen aquaculture facilities in Washington: in Rich Passage off Bainbridge Island and off Hope Island in Skagit Bay.
“Since the catastrophic Cypress Island net pen collapse in 2017, I have stood tall to defend the waters of Puget Sound,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. “This effort began by terminating finfish net pen operations due to lease violations. Despite years of litigation — and a company that has fought us every step of the way — we are now able to deny lease renewals for the remaining net pen sites. Today, we are returning our waters to wild fish and natural habitat. Today, we are freeing Puget Sound of enclosed cages.”
“This is a critical step to support our waters, fishermen, tribes, and the native salmon that we are so ferociously fighting to save,” said Commissioner Franz.
DNR’s denial of Cooke Aquaculture’s request to re-lease the sites to continue finfish net pen aquaculture gives the company until December 14 to finish operations and begin removing its facilities and repairing any environmental damage.
The Hope Island lease expired in March and has been in month-to-month holdover status since. The Rich Passage lease expired in November.
Decision Draws Support
Salish tribes and conservation groups hailed the decision as a step toward protecting the habitat of struggling stocks of native salmon.
“We are very pleased that Commissioner Franz rejected Cooke Aquaculture’s lease application. 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,” said Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Steve Edwards
“This decision is a joyous and historic victory for the recovery of wild fish, orcas, and the health of Puget Sound,” says Emma Helverson, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “For years, the public has overwhelmingly called for an end to this dangerous industry in our public waters. Commissioner Franz’s response proves she is both accountable to the public and dedicated to protecting Puget Sound’s irreplaceable public heritage for current and future generations.”
“We say, ‘the table is set when the tide goes out.’ Seafoods have always been a staple of Samish diet and traditions,” said Tom Wooten, Samish Indian Nation Chairman. “By removing the sound’s remaining net pens, our delicate ecosystem now gets a chance to replenish, repair and heal. We are grateful and lift our hands to the DNR’s partnership in helping protect the Salish Sea that tie us to our history and culture.”
Denials End Saga Started by 2017 Collapse
Cooke Aquaculture had previously leased four sites for net pen aquaculture from the Department of Natural Resources, recently growing steelhead trout in the net pens after years of using them to grow Atlantic salmon.
DNR’s letters denying an extension of Cooke’s leases lists several areas where the firm violated terms of the leases. DNR determined that allowing Cooke to continue operations posed risks of environmental harm to state-owned aquatic lands resulting from lack of adherence to lease provisions and increased costs to DNR associated with contract compliance, monitoring, and enforcement.
In August of 2017, a net pen at Cooke’s Cypress Island fish farm collapsed, releasing hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. As a result, DNR terminated that lease. Cooke was fined $332,000 and found negligent by the state Department of Ecology. The net pens were removed in 2018.
In December of 2017, DNR terminated Cooke’s Port Angeles lease due to Cooke operating in an unauthorized area and failing to maintain the facility in a safe condition. Cooke challenged that termination in the superior court and that litigation is still pending.
The Washington state Legislature in 2018 phased out Atlantic salmon farming, and the company since shifted operations at its remaining leaseholds in Rich Passage and Hope Island to grow sterile steelhead trout.