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Environment

Lummi Nation wins damages for net pen collapse; BC plans to phase out the practice

An aerial view of a net pen that's curved and broken with a crane and support vessels nearby.
David Bergvall/AP
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Washington State Department of Natural Resources
FILE - In this photo provided by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, a crane and boats are anchored next to a collapsed "net pen" used by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to farm Atlantic Salmon near Cypress Island in Washington state on Aug. 28, 2017, after a failure of the nets allowed tens of thousands of the nonnative fish to escape. A Washington state jury on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, awarded the Lummi Indian tribe $595,000 over the 2017 collapse of the net pen where Atlantic salmon were being raised, an event that elicited fears of damage to wild salmon runs and prompted the Legislature to ban the farming of the nonnative fish.

On Wednesday, a legal ruling in Washington state and an announcement by the Canadian government raised questions about the future of open water net pens in Washington's waters.

Cooke Aquaculture to pay damages for net pen collapse

In King County Superior Court, a jury ordered Cooke Aquaculture to pay damages of $595,000 to the Lummi Nation. The tribe filed suit seeking compensation for harm and expenses incurred after the company’s net pen collapsed near Cypress Island in 2017. It spilled hundreds of thousands of Atlantic Salmon into Puget Sound.

The jury concluded that Cooke’s negligence led to unjust enrichment. And they agreed that although Cooke paid a bounty for fish recovered by tribal fishermen, the tribal government had to clean up the mess at their own expense.

Lummi Nation staff Attorney James Stroud said overall, the ruling is a victory.

“A victory of sorts,” he said.

He said his enthusiasm was tempered because the monetary award doesn’t adequately reflect the damages imposed on the tribe.

The suit was also seeking compensation for cultural losses, because of harm done to native salmon and the Lummi way of life.

“It seems hard for non-tribal folks to fully appreciate how strong that connection is -- the risk posed by this release of an invasive species. How damaging that that risk was. And the way it impacted the Lummi Nation as a whole,” Stroud said.

The jury rejected that idea in its ruling, as well as Lummi Nation claims that new science shows it’s likely some of the Atlantic salmon spilled remain alive in the Salish Sea and could still "colonize" areas used by native species.

In a statement, Cooke thanked the jury for their thoughtful deliberation and said it accepts their decision on damages and will honor the amount as stated

“We understand that salmon is sacred to the Lummi Nation’s ancestral tradition, tribal mythology and living culture,” said Cooke Vice President for Public Relations Joel Richardson in an email.

“We look forward to continuing dialogue with the Nation to understand their perspectives and needs. Cooke Aquaculture Pacific remains committed to exploring ways we can collaborate with the Lummi Nation to ensure that its fishers have wild fish to harvest for generations. As a company with both wild and farmed fish interests, we share a commitment and expertise that we believe can be beneficial to the Lummi Nation,” the company's statement said.

After non-native farming ban, two Puget Sound net pens remain

Cooke still farms fish in two net pens in Puget Sound. It received permits from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to stock them with native rainbow trout, after state legislators passed a ban on non-native net pen farming in response to the 2017 spill. Tribes including the Swinomish vehemently oppose those permits. The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is partnering with Cooke on that venture.

In 2017, Cooke paid $2.75 million to settle a Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Wild Fish Conservancy, because of the collapse of its net pen. That group is still leading efforts to push the aquaculture industry out of Washington, by seeking to secure the leases for public use.

British Columbia to phase-out open water net pens, focus turns to Washington

Meanwhile, a historic decision on fish farming in British Columbia came down on Wednesday. Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Joyce Murray announced a phase-out of open water net pens throughout the province.

In a statement, Murray said the plan will establish Canada as "a world leader for the next-generation aquaculture industry."

She also announced a two-year renewal for licenses, as part of the transition, except those in the Discovery Islands, located near Victoria, B.C. In the coming weeks, Fisheries and Oceans Canada will share a draft framework for the multi-year transition.

Wild fish advocates in Washington say this decision ups the ante as Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz decides whether to renew two remaining leases to Cooke Aquaculture for net pens in Puget Sound.

Washington state is now the only jurisdiction on the West Coast that has not committed to ending or banning this practice in public waters.

Corrected: June 23, 2022 at 3:28 PM PDT
Corrected spelling of "Cooke Aquaculture" and changed "genetically modified (triploid) Rainbow trout" to "native rainbow trout." Cooke Aquaculture Pacific spokesperson Joel Richardson said the company does not farm genetically modified fish.
Updated: June 23, 2022 at 3:22 PM PDT
Added information about B.C. licenses that have been renewed for two years.
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