In an interview with SeafoodSource, Cooke Vice President of Communications Joel Richardson discussed his company’s efforts to convince Washington Governor Jay Inslee of the merits of the industry as the governor considers signing a bill that would phase out non-native finfish aquaculture in his state. Richardson also discussed the formulation of his company’s back-up plan in case it was unsuccessful in convincing the governor to veto the bill.
SeafoodSource: Is Cooke making any efforts to reach out to Gov. Inslee as he considers signing the bill?
Richardson: Yes, we will continue to reach out to Gov. Inslee over the coming days to urge him to veto HB 2957. Over the last few months we have provided Gov. Inslee and all legislators in Washington with evidence-based science from well-respected, credible fishery scientists to inform and educate on sea farming practices. We are also aware that the Washington Fish Growers Association is now urging Governor Jay Inslee to veto the bill this week calling on a ban on Atlantic salmon aquaculture in state waters "Ill-conceived and politically motivated rather than based on the best available science."
SeafoodSource: In what ways was science not taken into proper account by legislators as they considered the bill?
Richardson: You will have to ask the governor and legislators to answer that question. However, in the aquaculture industry’s view, it’s appalling that that lawmakers have ignored calls to drop the ban from some of the world’s top aquaculture and fisheries scientists, including from the state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, who refuted false and misleading claims made by anti-sea farming groups, tribes, and politicians that Atlantic salmon, when and if they escape, could interbreed with Pacific stocks or colonize rivers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the science from decades of peer-reviewed research does not support the conspiracy theory that Atlantic salmon that escape from net pens will colonize our rivers and/or interbreed with native stocks.
SeafoodSource: Cooke has said the state has a history of previous fish escapes and environmental incidents from other industries that have caused much more harm than Cooke’s escape caused, but that those industries have faced with elimination. What about this incident does Cooke believe caused such a strong reaction from Washington’s legislature? Does Cooke believe it was unfairly targeted?
Richardson: While unfortunate, the August 2017 fish escape from one fish pen in Washington was not larger than several other previous escapes that occurred when the same salmon farms were held under U.S. ownership – none of which resulted in attempts to ban the industry or cancel the farms’ leases. Annual escapes prior to 1996 are not recorded. In 1996, 107,000 fish escaped and in 1997 there were 369,000 escapees and in 1999 there were 115,000 escaped. These occurred all while under previous American domestic ownership in Washington.
This legislative ban response is clearly discriminatory against Cooke, a Canadian company. Similarly, previous pipeline explosions, refinery accidents, oil spills, or floods of raw sewage that occurred in [the] state also did not prompt efforts to ban the domestic American companies responsible, even though those incidents resulted in demonstrable harm to fish and/or humans.
Cooke did apply to state and federal regulatory agencies for a net pen replacement permit seven months before the collapse to make needed improvements at Cypress Island but did not have the opportunity to do so before the facility failed in August. The state also approved the lease transfers when Cooke acquired the pens just a year earlier in June of 2016.
SeafoodSource: What is Cooke’s plan if the ban goes into law? Will Cooke leave Washington, or is it considering converting its farms to other species, such as trout?
Richardson: As an immediate next step, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific will take the time we need to fully evaluate our operations and investments in Washington and explore all our available options, ensuring that any decision we ultimately make places our employees and their families first.
Cooke came to Washington as a global industry leader with the goal of being a valued and responsible partner here. We had planned to add significant capital investments on top of the USD 75 million contribution we made to Washington’s economy when we acquired the state’ existing net-pen facilities 2016. We had also planned for additional investments in continued scientific monitoring of Puget Sound’s waterways, and in state and tribal efforts to protect and recover wild salmon runs.
We know that we have work to do with our state, tribal and community partners to rebuild public confidence and demonstrate the value that our industry brings to Washington and the world. We remain committed to supporting Washington’s community, economy and marine ecology. And we will do so with a deep respect for the value and importance of native salmon to Washingtonians in general, and to the heritage, identity and culture of the Northwest Treaty Tribes in particular.