Cooke back in court against DNR “to keep employees safe”

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.

Cooke is back in court against the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz. This time, the company is seeking a preliminary injunction "to keep employees safe at Washington rainbow trout farms following lease renewal denial". It wants to secure what considers a reasonable time to harvest 360,000 rainbow trout and remove equipment from the Rich Passage and Hope Island fish farms in Puget Sound. This new action is the third in a week against the DNR over its aquaculture policy.

Employee safety, its top priority

The appeal filed by the company a week ago over the lease renewal denial said that the DNR's request to accelerate harvesting and begin removing equipment from the water at the same time, "would stress Cooke's remaining workforce past its breaking point". As then, in this new lawsuit the company claims that, in addition to disruptions for customers, significant changes in harvesting schedules can increase safety risks for employees.

"The arbitrary timelines set forth in Hilary Franz's politically motivated executive action are impossible to meet without exposing Cooke employees to dangerous winter working conditions, increasing perceived environmental risks, and causing significant financial harm", says the company in a statement signed by its Vice President of Public Relations, Joel Richardson.

Cooke also stresses that it operates its farms according to carefully coordinated farm management plans, "with employee safety being its top priority". The company claims it shared these concerns with the DNR, "but the Department was unwilling to adjust its demands", they say. Moreover, they recall that on Nov. 23, 2022, the DNR rejected their request for "a reasonable amount of time" to collect fish and remove equipment from the water, and agreed to give Cooke an additional 31 days to collect all fish by Jan. 14, 2023, and remove all equipment by April 14, 2023.

Time to do things right

As it did in its previous lawsuit, Cooke insists that it has repeatedly explained to DNR why these deadlines present safety risks to its employees, risks to the environment, and risk of financial loss in the form of destroyed crops. But, even despite additional communications on December 14, 2022, "DNR again arbitrarily ignored these explanations leaving Cooke no alternative but to seek injunctive relief", the company claims.

"The requested injunctive relief is necessary to ensure that Cooke can safely and responsibly take the necessary actions if it is required to close its operations at Hope Island and Rich Passage", it continues. "Cooke is seeking what is only reasonable to expect from DNR: the time to do things right".

The Court hearing for this preliminary injunction is scheduled for January 6, 2023. As said, it is in addition to the one the company filed on December 14, 2022, to appeal the denial of lease renewal and the one filed two days later, on December 1, by the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe to protect its sovereign rights in response to Commissioner Franz's ban on marine aquaculture in net pens.

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