Wild Fish Conservancy notifies Cooke it will sue over Washington salmon escape

Environmental nonprofit Wild Fish Conservancy issued a 60-day notice this week of its intention to sue Cooke Aquaculture “for killing and harming threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead, orcas, and other protected species” through its net pen operations in Puget Sound.

“Cooke’s commercial salmon farms kill, capture, trap, harm and otherwise ‘take’ [Endangered Species Act]-listed species both through regular operations and as a result of sporadic but reoccurring events, such as structural failures leading to fish escapes, and disease, viral, and parasitic outbreaks,” the notice said.

The Wild Fish Conservancy claims that chinook salmon, steelhead, bull trout, chum salmon, boccaccio, yelloweye rockfish, and southern resident killer whale populations in the region have all been negatively affected by Cooke’s operation.
“For over 30 years, and now under Cooke’s ownership, commercial net pens in Puget Sound have been harming the very species in which the public, Tribal Nations, and all levels of government have invested millions of dollars annually to recover and protect,” Wild Fish Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee said in a statement. “We cannot allow this industry to continue profiting in our public waters while pushing imperiled salmon, steelhead, orcas, and other iconic fish species closer to extinction.”

The Wild Fish Conservancy is backing up its intent to sue with an analysis of Cooke’s operation by the Environmental Protection Agency released in May 2020 finding Cooke’s net pens are “likely to adversely affect” several iconic fish populations listed under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA Fisheries is currently conducting a comprehensive review based on the EPA’s report.

“Even our federal agencies acknowledge net-pens cannot operate in Puget Sound without causing harm to protected species,” Beardslee said. “As long as Cooke continues to operate commercial net-pens in our public waters, this harm to threatened and endangered species will continue to occur.”

Cooke Aquaculture Vice President for Public Relations Joel Richardson said “no credible science exists to back Wild Fish Conservancy’s outlandish claims.”

“Cooke Aquaculture Pacific has been working with regulators for years on technical and environmental reviews and has recently received government approvals from scientists at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to grow native steelhead trout and the Department of Ecology for water-quality permits. Those permits have already been challenged by the Wild Fish Conservancy and upheld, with the judge finding that Wild Fish Conservancy’s claims had no merit,” Richardson said in an email to SeafoodSource. “As is our practice with all our family-run operations, our Washington fish-farm sites will be operated in a manner that allows us to take the best care of the marine environment and provide a fresh supply of locally grown seafood.”

Cooke Aquaculture was also mentioned in another intent to sue by a coalition of environmental organizations looking to reverse nationwide permits reissued by the U.S. Army Corps during the final days of Donald Trump's presidency.

Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Natural Resources


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