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Environment

Swinomish Tribe objects as state allows Cooke Aquaculture to stock net pen at Hope Island

Washington State Department of Ecology
Cooke Aquaculture's Clam Bay net pens in Rich Passage are currently permitted to raise Atlantic salmon.

The Swinomish Tribe is filing another amicus brief this week, in support of a lawsuit against the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Environmental groups want to stop Cooke Aquaculture’s plans to continue fish farming in Washington waters. 

After Cooke’s net pens on Cypress Island collapsed four years ago — and released thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound — the state began phasing out all net pen farming of non-native fish. But it still allows native species.

Cooke has leases for four aquaculture sites around Puget Sound. They plan to stock them with sterile steelhead. The state signed a permit last week, allowing Cooke to transport juvenile fish from a hatchery to its net-pen facility near Hope Island in Skagit Bay.

"Honestly, from a tribal perspective, we’re against all of them, but mainly Hope Island because it’s right in Swinomish’s backyard,” says the tribe’s chairman, Steve Edwards. 

Hope Island is between the Swinomish reservation on Fidalgo Island and Whidbey Island’s Deception State Park.

Edwards says the location is right off a sacred area for his tribe at Lonetree Point. And the net pens block the tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing areas, with stay cables and anchors that extend well beyond the main parts of the facility.

Additionally, he says they’ll pollute the water with the concentrated feeding operations of some 365,000 young steelhead that are about to be planted there. And he says fish farming practices fly in the face of traditional tribal culture.  

"I grew up as a fisherman, and I wasn't raised to catch pen fish. I was raised to catch wild stock. And that's what my people have eaten,” Edwards says. “I'll never eat pen fish, ever.”  

He says he’s disappointed that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife isn’t listening to the tribe’s concerns.

We just feel like we’re slapped in the face again, you know? Like -- forget about ’em,” he says.  

The state says Cooke has valid leases. And they’re following stringent safety regulations, with sterile native species that are tested for disease before transport and cannot reproduce if they escape.  

A FAST-TRACKED ISSUE

Next month, the state Supreme Court will consider arguments in a case that could invalidate Cooke’s current plans in Puget Sound.

In 2019, it became clear that Cooke was proceeding with native fish farming here. Environmental groups challenged the company’s plans. In November, they lost in a lower court. A King County Superior Court judge said the court didn’t know enough about salmon biology to properly evaluate the opponents’ concerns.

But the opponents appealed. And based on their view that the matter is urgent and the consequences dire, they asked for an expedited hearing with the state Supreme Court. The court accepted. The case comes before the justices Sept. 28, says Emma Helverson, the director of campaigns with Duvall-based nonprofit Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest.

"We're confused and concerned that now the Department of Fish and Wildlife has granted a transport permit to Cooke and saying, you know, 'technically right now you have all the permits you need. You're welcome to start planting'-- when, within a couple of months, the Supreme Court could say those permits are no longer valid,” Helverson says.  

She also points out that Cook’s lease at Hope Island is up in eight months, in March 2022. The group is asking who will be responsible for removing the fish if the court rules against Cooke after they have stocked their net pen.

The Wild Fish Conservancy brought suit against Cooke for the net pen collapse in 2017, leading to a $2.75 million settlement under the Clean Water Act.

Last week, the state signed a permit allowing the company to stock its net-pen facility on Hope Island, against the wishes of numerous environmental groups and the Swinomish.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife says this does not represent any new action and that the agency has a responsibility to allow Cooke to implement their lawful permit per its stipulations, after the lower court affirmed it; the appeal to the state Supreme Court does not prevent Cooke from moving forward on their existing permit.  

“We understand and respect the concerns of the Swinomish Tribe with regards to the fish transport permit granted to Cooke Aquaculture to move sterile triploid trout to the company’s Hope Island net pen facility,” says a statement from the agency’s Supervisor of Genetic and Health Laboratories, Kenneth Warheit.  

“We are working to ensure that the tribe has the opportunity to provide input as required in the marine aquaculture permit issued, especially as it concerns the potential escape and recapture of any fish from the net pens.  

“WDFW’s approval or denial of a fish transport permit to a finfish aquaculture facility is based on the reduction of risk for disease transmission and the structural integrity of the net pen. Currently, WDFW has no legal basis to deny the fish transport permit,” the statement says.

The tribe’s environmental policy director, Amy Trainer, says the agency is not paying attention to current science regarding the risks of fish farming in open water and state officials are disregarding the Swinomish’s concerns. She says that’s why the tribe will submit another amicus brief in the case this week. 

It’s a marine feedlot — right in the center of this tribe’s most sacred cultural area. And this rush to get these fish into this net pen is alarming, and it’s just wrong,“ Trainer said.

The collapse of Cooke’s net pens in 2017 resulted in the release of more than 250,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound and the state’s phase-out ban on net pen aquaculture of non-native fish. 

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