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State Investigation Finds Company Negligence Caused Summer Net Pen Collapse

courtesy Washington State Department of Natural Resources
State inspectors on September 19, 2017, surrounded by mussels and other marine debris known as "biofouling" that accumulated on nets at Cooke Aquaculture's Cypress Island facility, increasing drag that contributed to the August collapse.

A failure to clean and maintain its nets led to the net pen collapse at Cooke Aquaculture’s Cypress Island facility this summer and the escape of 100,000 more Atlantic salmon than originally reported. That’s the conclusion of an investigation by three state agenciesinto the August incident.

Biofouling Broke Net Pen

The report says Cooke’s negligence caused an excessive buildup of mussels and other marine organisms on the net pens, known as “biofouling.” Increased drag from the accumulations overwhelmed the moorings.

State Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz presented the findings Tuesday at a press conference in Olympia.                         

“The collapse of the net pen was entirely preventable. Let me be clear: Cooke’s disregard caused this disaster and recklessly put our state’s ecosystem at risk,” Franz said.  

Collapse Could Have Been Prevented

The investigators, which included experts from the Department of Natural Resources as well as the state’s Departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife, concluded that Cooke knew about the problems prior to the August collapse but failed to address them.

“Our investigation team doggedly pursued the truth. And what we can now confirm is that Cooke Aquaculture was negligent,” said Ecology Director Maia Bellon. “What’s even worse is that Cooke knew they had a problem, and they didn’t appropriately respond to deal with the problem. They knew that there was an issue, and Cooke Aquaculture could have and should have prevented this incident.”  

The report details how an incident during strong currents in July broke ten mooring points on the Cypress Island pens. They moved out of position, but Cooke failed to take appropriate actions in response.

The state says the company could have averted the August disaster with an early harvest of the fish, increased monitoring or replacement of nets. The state says it did not investigate sooner because authorities received incomplete and misleading information from Cooke.

More Salmon Escaped Than Cooke Reported

Based on the investigation, the state now estimates about 250,000 non-native Atlantic salmon escaped into local waters after the net pen collapse in August. The agencies say Cooke claimed to recover about three times as many fish as was actually possible. That means about 200,000 are still unaccounted for, putting Puget Sound’s ecosystem at risk.

Ecology is fining Cooke $332,000 for water quality violations related to the collapse. Cooke has 30 days to appeal.

In a statement, the company calls the state’s investigation “incomplete and inaccurate.” It says the company acknowledges the Cypress Island site fell behind on net hygiene prior to the mooring failures in July, but questions the state investigators’ expertise on drag calculations and fish counting.

Spokesman Joel Richardson says Cooke was shut out of the investigation process and warned its conclusions will create an unfair prejudice against Cooke in the Legislature, where lawmakers are currently considering measures to phase out non-native net pen aquaculture or ban it altogether.   

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to