Maine, GAA conclude audits into Cooke’s Bingham facility, accused by vegan activist group of cruelty to animals

Published on
November 22, 2019

The Maine Department of Agriculture’s Animal Welfare Division has concluded its investigation into the Cooke Aquaculture salmon hatchery in Bingham, Maine, finding no punitive measures were necessary after the company implemented a number of reforms.

The investigation was prompted by more than 17 hours of video footage shot by an undercover representative of Compassion over Killing, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit advocating for and end to animal abuse and greater adoption of vegan diets nationwide. The group has ties to VegInvest Trust, an investment fund that has backed seafood analog companies. An abbreviated, edited version of the video produced by Compassion over Killing was made public on 7 October.

In response to Compassion over Killing’s complaint, Animal Welfare Division Director Liam Hughes conducted an investigation between the months of June and October. He presented his report to Cooke on 8 November, according to Cooke Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson. SeafoodSource obtained the report via a Freedom of Access Act on 21 November.

In the report, Hughes said he witnessed improper behavior by the staff of the hatchery, but said that behavior had been addressed by the company.

“During the course of this inquiry I noted a workplace culture where bad techniques for handling and euthanasia were being taught by one staff member to another with no formal structure. The intent of the staff in the video was to euthanize fish that needed to be culled, not to intentionally cause suffering to the fish,” Hughes said. “The hidden camera footage from COK highlighted this and may have been instrumental in highlighting the problems to Cooke Aquaculture that has inspired them to take action. There have been several human resource matters that have been dealt with internally at Cooke Aquaculture as well as new training for the staff per our recommendations.”

Hughes said he recommended to the company that it provide better training on fish-handling, euthanasia techniques, and proper disease protocols for the staff “to recognize and prevent health issues with the fish,” as well as proper equipment for conducting euthanasia and the provision of instructions on the equipment’s use to the hatchery’s staff.

Hughes has closed the complaint, he concludes in his report, as the company has made the recommended changes.

“Cooke Aquaculture did take responsibility for what happened and has taken appropriate action to improve training and operations,” he wrote.

Maine does not have any document or formal protocol for identifying or disseminating best management practices, Hughes acknowledged, adding that he used the Global Aquaculture Association’s Best Aquaculture Practices program’s standards in lieu of state standards. Hughes expressed concern that hatchery facilities have not been designated for regulation to any branch of the Maine government.

“We determined that this type of operation was not regulated by any state agency in Maine,” he wrote. “It is my recommendation that another state agency that specializes in aquatic animals look into developing oversight in animal care at this type of aquaculture facility to ensure proper compliance with BMPs in the future. One of the biggest challenges to this investigation was the lack of experience with this species and type of aquaculture. Having other agencies such as DMR or IF&W oversee these operations with regular inspections could help prevent these kinds of complaints in the future.”

The state investigation triggered an audit by the BAP program into the hatchery, which had previously been certified to the standards of the program, according to GAA Communications Manager Steven Hedlund. The Bingham facility retained its BAP certification after the audit, Hedlund confirmed to SeafoodSource.

“We confirm that the BAP certification body conducted an investigation at the Bingham, Maine, hatchery, accepted the corrective actions that Cooke Aquaculture enacted, and continues to work with the company to ensure that it is in compliance with the BAP standards,” Hedlund said. “I can also confirm that Liam Hughes reached out to me in June, asking about BAP. I provided him with general information about the BAP standards development and certification process.”

Richardson, of Cooke Aquaculture, confirmed to SeafoodSource that the company had made a series of reforms at the Bingham facility and across its East Coast operations. Those changes include retraining all of the hatchery’s employees, including in enhanced operational procedures such as proper fish-handling protocol, within 48 hours after it was informed of the investigation. Richardson said that, since then, Cooke has retrained all of its employees who handle live fish in Maine and in Atlantic Canada.

“The Department of Agriculture informed us on 8 November that they had closed the complaint, as we had made every effort to improve the standards of the facility,” Richardson said. “At this time, we are working with BAP to verify all corrective actions are in compliance with the BAP standards. We feel we have done what we needed to do with the state and are now working with our certification body.”

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