State shuts down Washington fish pens

A troubled fish pens facility owned by Cooke Aquaculture has been ordered to shut down following an order issued last Friday by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The facility, which houses some 700,000 fish off the coast of Port Angeles, had its lease terminated by DNR Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz due to outstanding concerns.

Carlo Davis, DNR communications director, said the site being shut down consisted of 14 pens.

The decision to close it stemmed from three major concerns, he said.

These included the anchors for the pens being located outside their leased area.

Two anchor chains were missing entirely, and a third was structurally compromised.

“This is a high-traffic area in close proximity to naval and Coast Guard docks and near a ferry,” he said.

Pen drifting could be hazardous to watercraft traffic, he said.

Another issue was an exposed styrofoam float, which the DNR said has been leaching into the water since at least 2015.

There are four open-water fish pen sites in Washington waters, and Cooke Aquaculture owns all of them.

Atlantic salmon are raised at these locations. Atlantic salmon are a non-native fish which can compete with local populations for resources environmentalists told the Redmond Reporter in previous coverage.

Franz directed a team to investigate the four Cooke facilities in the wake of an August incident where a fish pen off Cypress Island collapsed, releasing hundreds of thousands of invasive fish into Puget Sound.

Reviews of the other sites will be presented to the DNR in coming months.

While the pens are geographically removed from the Eastside, native salmon use the Sammamish Slough’s tributary streams as spawning grounds.

Native salmon populations have been decimated in recent decades, and conservationists worry that outbreaks of invasive fish species, like those which Cooke Aquaculture breeds, can wreak further havoc on an already weakened native population.

A key contention in the DNR notice to Cooke Aquaculture was the fact that when the international company purchased the facility in 2016, it was aware of the structural deficits which ultimately led to it being shuttered.

According to the Peninsula Daily News, the facility was previously owned by Icicle Seafoods.

An inspection in 2015 resulted in notices to Icicle Seafoods to fix the issues. When Cooke Aquaculture took over in 2016, they assumed the conditions of the lease and failed to make the repairs by the time of the most recent inspection this year.

“In the case of Port Angeles, I think there’s been — Cooke has shown a lack of disregard for maintaining the facility in a good and safe manner,” Davis said.

The Peninsula Daily News said Cooke Aquaculture was planning on replacing the facility with a larger one that could hold up to 900,000 fish.

However, Gov. Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on issuing new fish farm permits after the Cypress Island net pen broke.

Joel Richardson, vice president of public relations for Cooke Aquaculture, said they’re reviewing the information they received from the DNR.

“At this time, we’re contacting DNR to reach out to them to understand the terms of the notice and we’ll take it from there,” he said.

Richardson said some of the issues in the notice had already been addressed.

A press release issued by Cooke said the DNR had known about the anchors being outside of the lease area for 20 years and only raised the issue recently.

“We do not believe the DNR understood what we were aware of and in the process of addressing these items and we do not believe the facts support DNR’s decision to terminate the lease,” the release said.

However, Cooke’s time in Washington waters may be limited regardless.

State legislators are planning on introducing two bills in the upcoming session designed to shut down open-water fish pens.

The first would ban existing leases from being renewed, ending the practice by 2025 when the last lease expires.

According to the Seattle Times, two Republican state Representatives will propose a more direct bill to immediately terminate the leases.

Reps. Drew McEwan and Jim Walsh plan on filing the bill.

Cooke Aquaculture is a multi-national corporation based out of Canada which does business in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

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