Fish Farm Faces Lawsuit, Potential Future Ban in Washington
January 1, 2018
In the wake of a collapse and massive escape of farmed Atlantic salmon in August 2017, the Wild Fish Conservancy filed a lawsuit against Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, LLC, under section 505 of the Clean Water Act.
Represented by Kampmeier & Knutsen, PLLC, of Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington and Earthrise Law Center at Lewis and Clark Law School of Portland, Oregon, Conservancy leaders aim to hold Cooke responsible for the near-complete structural failure of the global corporation‘s net pen facility in Deepwater Bay off Cypress Island. The collapse spewed live farmed salmon, fish carcasses, and tons of debris containing a variety of other pollutants into Puget Sound. According to the plaintiff’s attorneys, those discharges represent “blatantly negligent violations” of Cooke’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.
Of even greater concern are the escapees and their potentially detrimental effects on Puget Sound’s “fragile ecosystem” and “already imperiled” wild salmon fishery.
“This escape has forced the public to accept a huge gamble that depressed populations of wild, native salmon and steelhead will not be harmed by this non-native invader,” said Nick Gayeski, the Conservancy’s fisheries scientist. “Escaped non-native fish pose predation and disease threats to juvenile salmon and steelhead rearing in nearshore habitats in Puget Sound. 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.”
Cooke Aquaculture – a multibillion-dollar, privately-held corporation based in Canada with operations in Europe, South America, Japan, and the eastern United States - owns and operates all eight Atlantic salmon farms at four locations in Washington. While the Puget Sound operations are currently small, with about 80 employees overall, Cooke purchased them from Icicle Seafoods in 2016, intending to expand. Alaska and California ban Atlantic salmon net-pen aquaculture, and Oregon has no operations, in part because the coastline isn’t as suitable as Washington, which has the cold water, swift currents, and coastline Cooke needs and wants.
Opponents of fish farms note that Puget Sound is an imperiled ecosystem, home to threatened, fragile native Pacific salmon runs that Pacific Northwest governments and agencies have spent millions of tax dollars trying to revive.
The net-pen collapse is still under investigation, with conflicting reports and theories about the event and its aftermath.
Cooke managers say they don’t yet know what caused the pen failure, which they initially blamed on unusually high tides caused by the solar eclipse that occurred the weekend of the collapse. They later dropped that notion after tide information refuted their assertion. Cooke managers also estimated the initial escape at 4,500 fish from a pen that held 305,000 of the 8-to-10-pound Atlantic salmon. More than 100,000 went on the lam.
Commercial, recreational, and tribal fishermen rushed to harvest as many of the escaped Atlantic salmon as possible from public waters, but they and fishery managers say thousands eluded capture. Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife officials say escapees were found in waters ranging from southern Puget Sound to northern Vancouver Island.
State agencies don’t get a free pass, either, say fishermen and Conservancy leaders. Tribal leaders say agencies were slow to notify them of the escape, and lacked a coordinated effort, taking a week to set up an emergency response. Questions were also raised about what action state agencies took after the net-pen structure that collapsed in August became partly unmoored in late July, requiring extensive emergency repairs. Most investigators suspect that the July incident led directly to the August failure, and might have been prevented had state agencies intervened more forcefully.
State agency managers say they’re still assessing the ecological effect of the collapse.
So far, none of the Atlantic interlopers have been found in spawning grounds, although agency managers claim the farmed salmon were “sexually immature” and unable to crossbreed with native species – or even reproduce among themselves. Recaptured escapees also appeared malnourished, which seemingly indicates they weren’t feeding. Agency staff also claim that tested fish so far were free of diseases or parasites, including dreaded sea lice. Officials from the state Department of Ecology’s water quality program said testing is underway on the sea bed where the failed net pen dumped huge amounts of waste and other debris, including dead and dying fish.
Conservancy officials sent their own samples from escapees caught by Lummi Nation fishermen to independent labs for toxin and disease testing.
Cooke officials consider the level of criticism and scrutiny over a single incident unfair, noting that producing healthy fish and protecting the environment are “paramount” to them and running a successful operation.
But Kurt Beardslee, the Conservancy’s executive director, said this is “another act of negligence in a long line of transgressions” by the net pen industry in Puget Sound, among them three major escape events in the 1990s and “a deadly disease outbreak” in 2012. The Conservancy’s legal action aims “to put Cooke Aquaculture’s actions leading up to and during the spill under legal and public scrutiny” to benefit wild salmon and Puget Sound. They say the “dangerous and reckless” net pen industry threatens the recovery of native salmon, Puget Sound’s health, and the Pacific Northwest’s cultural identity.
“This disaster needs to be a wake-up call for the public to get involved, and to demand a halt to the expansion of the Atlantic salmon net pen industry,” Beardslee noted.
State Senator Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island) plans to take action to an entirely different level by introducing legislation to ban Atlantic salmon net-pen farming in Washington. Ranker said such legislation is long overdue, adding that he’s “more concerned with the day-to-day impact of invasive-species aquaculture of Atlantic salmon.”
According to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which holds the leases for the fish farms, Washington received $238,139 in rent and production fees from Cooke in 2016. Opponents say those fees and the jobs the farms provide aren’t worth the risk and detrimental effects. Those leases are scheduled to expire on dates ranging from March 2022 to December 2025. Ranker’s bill would let all existing leases expire, with no renewals and no permits for new farms. The bill would also require state agencies that regulate net-pen farming to keep a closer watch on operations.
In what now seems strikingly prescient, the Wild Fish Conservancy launched an “Our Sound, Our Salmon” campaign (www.oursound-oursalmon.org) earlier in 2017 to oppose the expansion of Atlantic salmon net pens in Puget Sound.