Cooke appeals denial of its Washington trout farming lease licenses

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific rainbow trout fish farm at Hope Island, Washington, 2022. Photo: Cooke.
Cooke Aquaculture Pacific rainbow trout fish farm at Hope Island, Washington, 2022. Photo: Cooke.

"Given the deplorable actions of Commissioner Franz and DNR, Cooke has filed a complaint in the Superior Court of the State of Washington to appeal the lease renewal denial, to protect its employees, the environment, and its legal rights". This is how the Canadian company has announced its intention to appeal the decision by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) not to renew its two leases for rainbow trout farms in Rich Passage and Hope Island, Puget Sound. Cooke is confident that, with the evidence presented, the court will conclude that the DNR had no legal or scientific basis for denying them. The appeal also includes a request for an injunction to ensure a reasonable period to safely harvest the fish and remove the remaining equipment from the farms.

Commissioner Franz to 'bury' Cooke

According to the release made public by Cooke, "the lease application denials were the culmination of Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz's five-year quest to 'bury' Cooke and destroy aquaculture in Washington", a claim also contained in the lawsuit. "In the words of Hilary Franz, the Commissioner of Public Lands, as she stated to her Chief of Staff in 2018, DNR set out to 'bury' Cooke by engaging in a multi-year politically motivated quest to punish Cooke for the collapse of that salmon farm", the legal text reads. "These words, which were said in private but have since been revealed in litigation, show the true punitive intent of the Commissioner of Public Lands in how she has managed and viewed Cooke's leases in Washington", the appeal continues.

The truth is that less than a week after making public the non-renewal of Cooke Aquaculture's fish farming contracts, Franz announced at a press conference that Washington will no longer host commercial finfish net pen aquaculture. The Canadian family-owned company now notes that in the immediate aftermath, the Commissioner of Public Lands "pivoted to using the announcement to fundraise for her re-election campaign", something Cooke considers "a stinging insult to those employed by the aquaculture industry in the state who are now faced with losing jobs right before the holidays".

They are not alone. At the time of the announcement, the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance regretted the Commissioner's and the Wild Fish Conservancy's (WFC) gesture in publishing a full-page ad in the Sunday edition of the Seattle Times declaring: "WE WON". The coalition considered it a taunting. "You got it wrong", they told her, while reproaching her for celebrating a triumph achieved "at the expense of hard-working people who now face losing their jobs farming a seafood product that the market wants and now must source from other countries".

Closure, a risk for Cooke, its employees, and the environment

At the time of the permit denial, the DNR required Cooke to remove 360,000 fish and all of its equipment from the water at the Rich Passage and Hope Island sites – a total of four farms – within 30 days. In response to what the company considers "reasonable objections", the Washington State Department of Natural Resources agreed to grant Cooke an additional 31 days to collect the fish and ordered it to remove all equipment by April 14, 2023. Cooke maintains that it has repeatedly explained to the DNR why these deadlines pose, in addition to a risk of financial loss in the form of destroyed harvests, a risk to the safety of its employees and also to the environment, but the DNR has "repeatedly and arbitrarily" ignored its explanations.

The reasons behind those risks are laid out in the text of the appeal. In it, Cooke claims that it has already lost qualified employees due to DNR's announcement and that the remaining staff must focus on safely harvesting the fish left on its farms while continuing to perform maintenance, inspections, and other farming activities. "DNR arbitrarily asks Cooke to accelerate harvest and also start to remove equipment from the water at the same time, which would stress Cooke's remaining workforce past its breaking point", the legal text states.

According to the Canadian company, the closure as required by the DNR would also mean the loss of millions of dollars in revenue because there would not be a market for the fish large enough to absorb the sudden harvest. "Cooke has used all commercially reasonable efforts to complete the harvest as quickly as possible, but will be unable to safely meet the arbitrary deadline imposed by DNR", the appeal says. "An accelerated harvest schedule provides no benefit to the citizens of Washington, and poses safety risks to Cooke's employees and the environment", it continues. "The only benefit conferred by this schedule is the Public Lands Commisioner scoring political points with certain constituencies", it also states.

Denial contrary to scientific research

Once again, the statement sent by Cooke and signed by its Vice President Public Relations, Joel Richardson – who already stated that the order was "short-sighted" – claims that the DNR's refusal to renew Cooke's leases was "punitive, arbitrary, and contrary to extensive scientific research completed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), DNR's sister agency that has primary responsibility to ensure the health of wild fish stocks in Washington". The company recalls that WDFW research concluded that rainbow farming in Washington waters would not likely have significant adverse effects on the environment and that those findings were unanimously affirmed by the Washington Supreme Court in January of this year.

"The decision is unjustified given the State Legislature's confirmation that native species of fish can be farmed in Washington's waters and the extensive work done by Cooke and multiple state agencies, including WDFW, to strengthen the regulatory framework governing marine farms", Cooke states. A view in which the company has the continued support of both major U.S. seafood industry groups, which have already called for an independent review of the DNR's decisions, and the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, which called Washington's net pen aquaculture ban an "ill-informed order".

Finally, Cooke recalls that Rich Passage and Hope Island Farms have been present at the same locations for more than 40 years, with multiple lease renewals granted by the DNR to previous operators. "Scientific studies and monitoring data have consistently shown that the Rich Passage and Hope Island fish farms do not have an adverse impact on the environment. The fish grown by Cooke are the exact strain of sterile rainbow trout used by WDFW to stock lakes and rivers throughout Washington", the company concludes.

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