Washington accuses Cooke of cover-up in salmon pen collapse

State investigators are claiming that Cooke Aquaculture tried to cover up the scale of the August fish farm collapse near Cypress Island, Washington, that sent hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound. 

The report, released this Tuesday, 30 January by officials at the Washington state departments of Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, and Natural Resources, accuses Cooke of negligence in regard to maintenance of its fish pens and in underestimating the number of non-native fish that had escaped, the Seattle Times reported.

Earlier this week, in response to the spill, the Canadian aquaculture firm was fined USD 322,000 (EUR 258,600) by the state for violating the Washington’s water quality laws.

Cooke told state agencies that 160,000 salmon went missing, whereas investigators reported that the number was closer to 263,000. Fewer than 60,000 were caught, and the remainder are presumed to be dead or still in the Puget Sound and neighboring bodies of water. Last year, escaped Atlantic salmon were found more than 42 miles upstream in the Skagit River. 

“The [fish farm] collapse was not the result of natural causes,” Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said. “Cooke’s disregard caused this disaster and recklessly put our state’s aquatic ecosystem at risk.”

In response to Cooke’s claim that the report was flawed and that the number of missed fish was being miscalculated by state agencies, Washing Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said, “Our investigative team doggedly pursued the truth. Cooke Aquaculture was negligent, and Cooke’s negligence led to the net-pen failure. What’s even worse was Cooke knew they had a problem and did not deal with the issue. They could have and should have prevented this.”

Instead, Cooke initially blamed the farm collapse on the solar eclipse which occurred in August, which the company said caused particularly strong tides, Bellon said.

Cooke Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson said in a statement that Cooke was shut out of the investigative process, leading to "an inaccurate and misleading document.”

Franz has ordered inspections of all of Cooke’s Puget Sound salmon farms, and said she will rule in coming days on the renewal of Cooke’s lease for the Cypress Island farm, which still has two net pens remaining in operation.


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