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Cooke Aquaculture files suit over terminated net pen leases in WA

An aerial view of a grid of fish pens in the water with tree-covered islands in the background.
Cooke Aquaculture
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. Last month, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued an executive order banning net-pen fish-farming in state waters, citing danger to struggling native salmon.

Cooke Aquaculture has filed an appeal in Thurston County Superior Court against Washington’s decision to terminate its leases for fin fish net pens in state waters. In court documents, the company said the decision was arbitrary, politically motivated and contrary to science.

In a statement, Cooke wrote it has a state Supreme Court ruling and legislative mandate on its side, supporting the farming of native species. It also argued that the deadline of 30 days to harvest all fish and remove all its farm equipment from two sites was unreasonable.

The state Department of Natural Resources originally set a deadline of Dec. 14 for Cooke to remove its facilities from leased areas at Rich Passage off Bainbridge Island and Hope Island in Skagit Bay, but the agency extended the deadline for removal of fish to Jan. 14 and removal of Cooke's net pens to April 14.

The appeal is against both the Department of Natural Resources and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. It states the company’s rights to due process were violated and asks the court to reinstate Cooke’s leases and award damages. See the full appeal below.

This is not the first time Cooke Aquaculture has filed suit against DNR for termination of a net pen lease. The debate over net pen fish farming in Washington state waters has intensified since the 2017 net pen collapse at Cypress Island.

Letters sent by DNR to the Canada-based company in November notifying the company that its leases would not be renewed described multiple contract violations and a history of negligence, exemplified by the 2017 collapse.

The resulting spill of hundreds of thousands of nonnative Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound and the Salish Sea led to legislative action in 2018 banning nonnative net pen farming. Cooke replaced its Atlantic salmon fish stocks with sterile native steelhead.

Speaking at a televised press conference on Nov. 18, Franz announced an end to the practice of commercial net pen fish farming in Washington. She said there is no way to safely farm finfish in open sea net pens without jeopardizing struggling native salmon and that it is not in the state’s best interest to support it.

Among DNR’s arguments against commercial net pen fish farming are tribal concerns that they undermine tribal treaty fishing rights, both by potentially hurting struggling salmon species and because some of the net pens have interfered with access to tribes’ traditional and customary fishing areas. But at least one tribe in Washington opposes the steps taken by DNR.

The Jamestown S’Klallam has a joint venture with Cooke and sees fish farming as a key to fulfilling its treaty rights, by providing more fish in what it sees as a responsible and sustainable manner.

In response to Wednesday's filing, Franz said Cooke knew when its lease was ending and "had ample time to prepare operationally and financially for this decision."

"My denial of Cooke’s application is well supported by the law and their long track record of violating the terms of their leases,” she said in a statement.

On Dec. 16, two days after Cooke's filing, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe also filed suit against the Washington Department of Natural Resources. The suit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court says when Franz announced the ban, she implied that all Washington tribes support it. Several do – but the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe said they were not properly consulted as sovereigns.

Updated: December 19, 2022 at 3:16 PM PST
Added information about Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe filing a lawsuit against DNR.
Updated: December 14, 2022 at 6:05 PM PST
Added statement from Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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