By Alex Visser
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
The state Department of Ecology announced Tuesday, Jan. 30, that Cooke Aquaculture will be penalized for violating the terms of its water quality permits in relation to the company’s net pen failure last August.
The department flagged the company for poor net cleaning, failure to follow protocol and insufficient attention to engineering, resulting in a fine of $332,000.
Cooke operates four net-pen facilities in Washington state waters, floating operations in which Atlantic salmon are farmed for food.
Cooke’s net pen facility on Cypress Island collapsed last summer, releasing hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. The event prompted Washington state to terminate the company’s lease.
Ecology worked in collaboration with the state departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife to investigate the net pen failure, releasing a report on their findings Tuesday. The report attributed the collapse to a lack of maintenance on Cooke’s part.
Natural Resources said in the report that more than 10 tons of mussels and other marine organisms had built up on the net pens, overwhelming the systems that keep the pens afloat. The department said proper maintenance could easily have prevented this build up, and that the company knew about the facility’s poor condition before the collapse took place.
“The collapse was not the result of natural causes,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz during a news conference Tuesday. “Cooke’s disregard caused this disaster and recklessly put our state’s aquatic ecosystem at risk.”
DNR also said the company failed to accurately report the numbers of fish that escaped, which hindered agency investigations. The department said Cooke’s original reports put the number of fish escaped at around 160,000, while the investigation concluded that between 243,000 and 263,000 fish escaped. This puts the number of fish unaccounted for between 186,000 and 206,000.
“Cooke made this situation even more difficult by under-reporting the number of fish that escaped during the net-pen collapse, and over-reporting the number it recovered afterward,” said Amy Windrope, Fish & Wildlife’s north Puget Sound regional director, in a press release.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, is the prime sponsor on a bill that would ban the use of Atlantic salmon in state aquaculture, essentially bringing Cooke’s Washington operations to a halt.
“This sort of negligent, untruthful behavior is unacceptable for any corporation in Washington state,” Ranker said in a press release. The senator said such behavior is especially alarming when it “can have such dire consequences to our environment and to our economy when things go wrong.”
But Cooke called the report “incomplete and inaccurate,” and said it would create “unfair prejudice” against the company among members of the Legislature.
The company said the report’s fish count estimates are based on a flawed method that involves using average fish weight, while Cooke employees counted each fish. While Joel Richardson, the company’s vice president of public relations, admitted the company fell behind in maintenance, he said they have since tried to cooperate with the agencies involved in the investigation.
“We cooperated fully with the investigation and stood ready to provide expertise, background and context to help the investigators in their work,” Richardson said in a press release. “Unfortunately, we don’t believe the public or lawmakers are getting a complete and accurate picture from this report.”
Cooke said the company wanted to participate in the investigation, but was excluded from doing so by the agencies involved. Cooke said state agencies did include two Native American tribes in their investigation, tribes that had been calling for a ban on Cooke’s net pen operations.
“Excluding Cooke but including net-pen opponents stacks the deck against Cooke,” Richardson said. “Tribes, lawmakers, Cooke, the public – we all deserve to know the truth, and this report should be driven by a full and accurate understanding of the facts.”
Cooke said the company was given only three days to respond to the investigation, and that their response was received only three hours before Franz’s news conference. The company said this demonstrates state agencies’ unwillingness to acknowledge Cooke’s concerns.
Cooke Aquaculture has 30 days to appeal the Department of Ecology’s fine.