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Cooke Aquaculture partners with Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe to farm native fish in the Salish Sea

Courtesy Washington Department of Natural Resources
An aerial image of Cooke Aquaculture's collapsed net pen operations at Cyprus Island on August 28, 2017.

It’s been more than two years since Cooke Aquaculture’s net pens collapsed at Cypress Island near Anacortes. The fallout led the state Legislature to ban net-pen farming of non-native fish in Washington waters.

Now, Cooke is back with plans to farm two native species in its pens in Port Angeles Harbor.

Cooke Aquaculture has net pens in four DNR locations around Puget Sound.
Credit Courtesy WDFW
Courtesy WDFW
Cooke Aquaculture has net pens in four DNR locations around Puget Sound.

Cooke is able to forge ahead with its plans here because it has switched species. Instead of non-native Atlantic salmon, it wants to farm steelhead. And it has a partner in a joint venture to do so: the Jamestown S’Klallum Tribe.

“Our farm that we are going to be venturing into is a brand-new farm. It’s all brand-new equipment – the latest and greatest equipment that’s out there,” said Ron Allen, the tribe’s chairman and CEO.

For him, this new venture is an exciting opportunity to continue diversifying the local economy. He says it’s been years since they have been able to make money on fishing, because they aren’t coming back in sufficient numbers.

So, for several years, scientists from the Jamestown S’Klallam have been collaborating with federal scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to find ways to raise broodstock for native sablefish (or black cod) in Puget Sound. And he says they’re eager to learn from "the experts of the world" on net pens. Cooke brought the native steelhead into the deal.

Critics say even if they're farming native fish, the net pens concentrate too many organisms and their waste in a small space — and that this is unhealthy for the fish and the open water where they're raised. There's concern they can spread disease and research showing they spread sea lice.

But Cooke and the Jamestown S’Klallum say newer technologies will solve those problems and they're committed to being good stewards of the environment.

It’s a hot-button issue. Many groups oppose any kind of net-pen farming and point out that Washington has been an outlier on the West Coast of the U.S. by allowing it. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell testified Wednesday that federal legislation is needed to prevent a disaster like the collapse at Cypress Island from happening again.  

Tom Wooten is tribal chairman of the Samish Indian Nation. He says Deepwater Bay, where Cooke leased land from the state, should be off limits. It has been identified by the state as a natural resources protection area.

“We’ve opposed that activity since Day One. We don’t believe that that’s the best location for raising non-native fish. And now they’ve changed the game, saying that they’re going to raise rainbow trout, which are indigenous, but again — it’s all the pollution, the sea lice — everything that comes along with that,” Wooten said.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has just extended the comment period on Cooke’s proposal. Comments on the steelhead/rainbow trout proposal are now being accepted through Nov. 1.

Washington's Department of Natural Resources revoked Cooke's leases after the collapse at Cypress Island and violations at a second location, in Port Angeles Harbor. Cooke sued and a trial is set for next October.

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