Fight over Cooke’s steelhead permits in Puget Sound headed to Washington Supreme Court

Earlier this month, conservation groups lost a lawsuit to block Cooke Aquaculture from raising domesticated steelhead in net-pens in Washington’s Puget Sound, but the groups announced on 23 November they will file a second appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.

In January, authorities from Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) granted Cooke a five-year permit to farm steelhead in Puget Sound, and Cooke received water quality permits from the state’s Department of Ecology in September. A month later, a coalition of environmental groups, led by the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC), filed a lawsuit claiming the permitting process was incomplete.

“In filing this lawsuit, we were simply asking Washington Fish and Wildlife to do their due diligence and fully analyze potential environmental impacts before making a decision on whether or not to permit this new project,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the WFC.

That lawsuit – backed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, and Friends of the Earth – was rejected this month by a lower court in Washington on grounds that the court did not have the scientific knowledge to overturn WDFW’s ruling. 

“The court’s decision to rely on the expertise of the very agency being challenged means the scientific merits of this case have not been considered. The health of our Sound is too important. We will appeal this case directly to the Supreme Court,” Beardslee said.

A press release from WFC and its co-counsel said the public comment period on the state’s environmental review received more than 3,500 comments from local tribes as well as commercial and sport fishing representatives, biologists, killer whale experts, and the general public.

“These comments overwhelmingly called for the agency to withdraw [its] initial decision and conduct a full environmental impact statement before permitting Cooke’s new project. Even the Department of Natural Resources, a jurisdictional agency to the review process, submitted comments expressing concerns that were never addressed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife,” the press release read.

WFC won a settlement against Cooke in 2017 for USD 2.75 million (EUR 2.3 million) after a net pen collapse released more than 300,0000 farmed Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. The state’s Department of Ecology also fined Cooke USD 332,000 (EUR 280,000).

In a statement sent to SeafoodSource, Cooke Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson called the Wild Fish Conservancy, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Earth "anti-aquaculture" and said the company was happy to see Washington's decision to grant it permits for its steelhead aquaculture operation confirmed by the court.

"This favorable court ruling for WDFW follows a long line of decisions by courts in Washington finding no significant adverse impacts associated with farming of fish. It also follows the admission by WFC’s own expert in a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act that he could not, under oath, produce any evidence of the claims that WFC’s executive director, Kurt Beardslee, had made regarding the impacts of escaped fish from Cooke’s operations, and instead admitting, in fact, that he had no evidence and no opinion about impacts from the unfortunate Cypress Island Atlantic salmon escape of 2017," Richardson said. "Cooke continues to work with regulators and other partners to bring its farms in Washington up to global standards. In January, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific and joint venture partner Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe welcomed WDFW’s approval to farm trout in Puget Sound. The partners are working together to establish trout aquaculture operations in Port Angeles Harbor.”

Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Ecology


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