A controversial plan to raise domesticated steelhead in net pens in Puget Sound faces a new legal challenge.
Cooke Aquaculture wants to use its remaining leases with the state, despite the ban on net pen farming of non-native fish. So, it proposed switching from Atlantic salmon to sterilized native steelhead.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife approved the plan, without requiring an environmental impact statement to analyze and mitigate any new risks. Several environmental groups challenged that decision, but a lower court upheld it, deferring to the expertise of the agency.
Kurt Beardslee with the Wild Fish Conservancy says now they’re taking it straight to the state Supreme Court, where he says the technical arguments will get more thorough evaluation.
“Because the courts are not scientists and it is really hard to get past them just relying on the management agencies throwing up their hands up and saying we need to defer to your opinions,” Beardslee said.
Cooke’s net pen collapse resulted in the release of more than 250,000 non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. The groups challenging their latest plan say a significant number of the sterile steelhead could still reproduce and pose risks to native salmon and orcas.
“We just don't believe that Puget Sound and our wild salmon and killer whales should be put at a new risk without going through an environmental assessment," Beardslee said. "That’s all we’re asking for — to do a thorough environmental review of the potential impacts.”
Cooke says it believes there is public support for its latest venture. In September 2019, it signed a partnership agreement with the local Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, which sees it as a good way to diversify its economy and create jobs. The state Department of Ecology says about a third of some 600 comments it received on the proposal were supportive of Cooke’s proposal for a modified permit.