Group that recorded undercover videos at Cooke hatchery has ties to vegan seafood sector

Published on
October 8, 2019

Compassion over Killing, the vegan activist group that initiated a complaint with the Maine Department of Agriculture regarding alleged animal abuse at the Cooke Aquaculture salmon hatchery in Bingham, Maine, has ties to VegInvest Trust, an investment fund that has backed seafood analog companies including New Wave Foods, Good Catch Foods, and BlueNalu.

Compassion over Killing (COK) is a 501(c )3 nonprofit registered in Washington, D.C., U.S.A. Its board chair is Amy Trakinski, who is also the managing director and trustee of VegInvest. Trakinski and other COK staff for did not immediately return calls and emails from SeafoodSource asking for clarification on the ties between VegInvest and COK.

New Wave Foods, a maker of lab-cultured faux shrimp, was founded in 2014 with the goal of addressing “increasing concerns about the environment and the human rights toll of fresh seafood.” Good Catch Foods launched fish-free tuna pouches, sold in three flavors, in late November 2018. And Blue Nalu is developing seafood products cultured from fish cells, with the aim of creating products with the taste and texture of finfish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Each of the three companies has attracted investment from VegInvest and other private equity and venture capital firms as part of a growing boom in the imitation seafood sector.

That sector has been marketing itself as appealing to a heightening global sensibility when it comes to sustaining the environment and as a “clean” alternative to traditional seafood. Good Catch markets its products under the slogan, “Seafood without sacrifice,” and claims its consumers “can make delicious meals that are good for you and good for the planet.”

BlueNalu President and CEO Lou Cooperhouse recited a similar marketing message in a recent press release.

“BlueNalu intends to disrupt the current industry practice, in which fish are farmed or wild-caught. Instead, we plan to produce real seafood products directly from fish cells, in a way that is healthy for people, humane for animals, and sustainable for our planet,” Cooperhouse said.

Good Catch, BlueNalu, and other developers of seafood alternatives have stressed a non-combative approach in relations with the seafood industry. Florian Radke, a marketing specialist with New Wave Foods, told SeafoodSource in 2016 her company wished to co-exist in the industry with fisheries and aquaculture companies.

“We don’t see the industry as the enemy – we want to be a part of this industry, and see if we can find a solution that’s better in the long run for us and the environment. We want to collaborate. We want to disrupt in a positive way,” Radke said.

However, the COK investigation, if backed by VegInvest, represents an antagonistic move against the sector. The video it released on Monday, 7 October featured five minutes of footage recorded at Cooke’s Bingham hatchery that intended to paint a negative portrait of the entire aquaculture sector.

“Aquaculture is yet another cruel and exploitative factory farming system. It is not a solution to the overfishing of our oceans,” said the COK film’s narrator. “The best way we can protect these animals – and our planet – is to leave fish off our plates.”

Cooke President and CEO Glenn Cooke apologized for the actions recorded by the COK investigation, which was undertaken by a person who worked at the hatchery undercover between January and April. According to Mike Wolf, director of investigations for Compassion Over Killing, COK decided to investigate Cooke essentially at random, the Bangor Daily News reported.

“We were in the area and they were hiring,” Wolf said.

On Tuesday, 8 October, Maine Aquaculture Association Executive Director Sebastian Belle issued a statement that said it would reexamine its code of conduct for its members.

"The ethical care of animals is taken very seriously by MAA. MAA does not endorse or approve of any farm practices that result in the abuse or neglect of any animals. Animal care and responsible animal husbandry are critical to successful and safe aquatic farming,” Belle said. “MAA understands and respects people who make dietary choices based on philosophical or ethical considerations. MAA members are proud of the role they play in providing Americans with healthy and sustainable foods. As part of our continued efforts to assist members in developing innovative and sustainable farming methods, and considering this recent event, we are going to re-examine our Code of Conduct and recommendations for best management practices. As part of that process, we will be consulting with experts in the veterinary and animal husbandry professions to help us provide the best possible recommendations to our members.”

Belle added that, if its contents are accurately portrayed, the actions shown in the video are “disturbing, unacceptable, and [do] not represent standard operating practices in Maine, in Cooke Aquaculture, or more broadly throughout the entire aquaculture sector in the United States.”

“MAA’s understanding is that Cooke has moved quickly to re-train employees, clarify internal operating guidelines, and encourage any employees who observe unacceptable behavior to inform farm mangers immediately," Belle said. "The company is also working with the Maine Department of Agriculture and external certification bodies to ensure that Cooke’s operating procedures reflect the best state of knowledge with respect to animal welfare, and that such behavior never happens again.”

The Global Aquaculture Alliance, which manages the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification program, also issued a statement on Tuesday.

“BAP is aware of the complaint against Cooke Aquaculture’s fish hatchery in Bingham, Maine. The BAP third-party certification program takes all complaints seriously, and there is a mechanism in place to address any complaint that comes to the attention of BAP,” it said. “The BAP program integrity team is in contact with Cooke Aquaculture and is investigating the matter.”

Photo courtesy of Compassion over Killing

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