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Washington State Terminates Lease For Atlantic Salmon Farm In Puget Sound

Washington DNR
Drone view of collapsed Cypress Island net pens, which resulted in the escape of more than 200,000 non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.

Over the weekend, Washington state tightened the screws—again—on an Atlantic salmon farming operation. The state Department of Natural Resources Saturday terminated the lease for Cooke Aquaculture's Cypress Island fish farm near Anacortes.

That's where one of three floating net pens collapsed last August, releasing an estimated 250,000 non-native salmon into Puget Sound.

State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said an investigation found multiple violations of the lease terms.  

"Given the number of violations of Cooke's lease at Cypress and the refusal to be open and honest about their operations, I do not have any other choice but to terminate the lease,” Franz said.  

The initial reaction from the fish farming company was measured.

"Given that Cooke Aquaculture Pacific received the notice of termination on a Saturday, we will reserve comment until we’ve had the proper time to review the letter and assess its impact on our operations and our employees’ livelihoods," Vice President for Public Relations Joel Richardson said via email.

Franz said the termination of the fish farm lease, which would have run through 2023, is permanent.

"This is just another step toward ending Atlantic salmon net-pen operations in the waters of the Salish Sea and in the native fishing grounds of The Samish Indian Nation and other area Tribes," said Samish Tribal Chairman Tom Wooten in a statement. "The time is now to join our neighbors on the West Coast and end the practice of farming an invasive species in our waters."

Cooke raises Atlantic salmon at four locations around western Washington, as well as in Maine, Canada, Chile and Scotland. The Canadian company took over the Washington locations in 2016 after buying Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods.   

In December, DNR terminated the lease for Cooke's Port Angeles harbor fish farm, citing "serious safety problems" and anchor lines outside the permitted zone there. Cooke disagreed with the findings and has filed suit against DNR in Clallam County Superior Court.

August's fish farm collapse and massive escape energized salmon farming opponents at the Washington Legislature. State lawmakers are presently considering options that range from terminating all non-native salmon net pen leases immediately, to gradually phasing out the industry or extending a current moratorium on new net pen facilities out to mid-2020.

In January, many Cooke workers came to a packed state Senate hearing in Olympia to defend aquaculture and their jobs. They said a shutdown of salmon net pens would be unjustified. Cooke managers testified the proposed move would jeopardize investment in Washington state from outside and the mortgages and livelihoods of caring people.

"I definitely looked at this context and understood that there are jobs that will be impacted as a result of this," Franz said in an interview after she approved the Cypress Island net pens lease termination. "At the same time, my responsibility is to make sure I am caring for the lands and waters that I manage.”

In the termination letter to Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, DNR alleged the company failed to keep its facility "in good order and repair" and said one of the remaining net pen groupings was "in danger of catastrophic failure."

The letter also took issue with the addition of a feed barge and floating office platform without the state's approval and anchors outside the leasehold.

Franz said DNR is in the process of inspecting the other Cooke fish farm operations in Puget Sound and may take further actions. The other Atlantic salmon net pens are near Bainbridge Island and off Hope Island, which is by the mouth of the Skagit River.

Oregon, California and Alaska effectively ban saltwater fish farms in their waters.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.