Cooke faces government action, lawsuit after salmon escape

Farmed salmon

Cooke Aquaculture faces potential fines and a lawsuit in the aftermath of a large-scale farmed salmon escape it experienced in Washington State last week.

The Washington Department of Ecology said that Cooke could face penalties for the incident, Larry Altose, a spokesman for the agency told The Seattle Times. 

“[Farmed salmon] are supposed to be released to the store,” Altose told the newspaper. “Not [Puget] Sound.”

Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in Washington and said the salmon release was a “situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon.”

Inslee directed the Department of Ecology to put any new permits for net pens on hold until a thorough investigation of the Cooke incident is completed. 

“Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again,” Inslee said in a statement. “I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters.”

While the state’s actions may affect Cooke’s current and future aquaculture operations, “Our focus continues to be on removing fish from the damaged Cypress site and then safely removing the damaged farm equipment,” Chuck Brown, a spokesman for Cooke, told SeafoodSource. “We’ll be working with all appropriate agencies and regulators regarding our current and future operations in Washington.”

Local marine environmental groups in Washington have decried Cooke’s handling of the incident, and last week, conservation group Wild Fish Conservancy said it will sue Cooke for violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The group claimed the release threatens struggling wild fish populations and the local ecosystem, in violation of federal pollution laws.

Cooke is not yet addressing the group’s threatened lawsuit. 

“We’re focused on the Cypress farm site and the safe removal of the fish and equipment there. This will be managed through proper channels in due time,” Brown told SeafoodSource.

However, Brown also said that Cooke realizes the seriousness of the farmed salmon release. 

“We completely understand the concerns surrounding what happened. We are working with our state regulatory and tribal partners to contain any further fish from escaping and to recover the fish that have escaped and limit the impact of this incident on native salmon stock,” Brown said. “[Our] full efforts are directed at removing fish from the farm and removing gear safely. We are tracking the numbers we’re pulling from the farm and we will be working with multiple State agencies to track the numbers of fish being recaptured and get a firm handle on the number of escapes.”

In addition to thousands of fish that have been caught by recreational and commercial fishermen, Cooke Aquaculture has now removed a total of 119,266 Atlantic salmon from the damaged cage structure at the Cypress Island farm site. The total is far higher than the company’s initial estimate of escaped fish, which it listed as around 4,000 salmon.

In a public statement, Cooke said crews began retrieving salmon from four separate pens on Sunday at first light and retrieved a total of 52,000 fish, adding to the 62,100 fish removed from the site on Saturday, and the 5,166 salmon that had been retrieved earlier in the week. 

“Observations from crews working on site, including divers, indicate there are still fish contained within the nets and the removal of those fish will continue through Monday. On Sunday afternoon, a crane barge was being positioned to begin pursing the nets, bringing them toward the surface to facilitate removal of the remaining fish from the pens,” Cooke said. “The company is asking boaters to exercise extreme caution and to travel at slow speeds through the area to help protect the safety of divers in the water and crews working on or around the damaged cage structure.”


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