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“As a steward of Washington’s lands, DNR is sending a very clear message to others: ‘Do not come to Washington, do not invest here'”. That’s how forceful Cooke has been in his statement about the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) not renewing two trout farming licenses in Puget Sound. According to the statement released by the Canadian family-owned company, this decision will force them to kill 332,000 juvenile steelhead planned to be stocked at Rich Passage and Hope Island in 2023.

DNR’s leadership actions: perplexing at best, punitive at worst

“We were surprised by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz’s decision. Over the past five years, Cooke has worked to foster productive working relationships with Tribes, DNR staff, and other state agencies”, said Cooke in the release. It seems to be a clear response to Commissioner Franz’s statements the day before. “This is a critical step to support our waters, fishermen, tribes, and the native salmon that we are so ferociously fighting to save”, she said.

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In the press release issued after the decision, the commissioner stated that the DNR had determined that “allowing Cooke to continue operations posed risks of environmental harm to state-owned aquatic lands resulting from lack of adherence to lease provisions and increased costs to DNR associated with contract compliance, monitoring, and enforcement”.

For its part, the Canadian company claimed that the compliance problems argued by the DNR for not renewing its two rainbow trout fish farming leases at Rich Passage and Hope Island stem from the fact that they assumed ownership of farms that the previous owner had deteriorated. “After the collapse of that farm, Cooke focussed on improving the operations in Washington, working with regulators to increase transparency of its operations, implementing third party engineering review of its facilities, implementing enhanced environmental monitoring, and transitioning the farms early to all female, sterile trout”, they said.

Cooke considers the DNR’s decision ignores all these efforts and improvements but, in the statement, it distinguished DNR staff and Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz. “DNR’s own staff has repeatedly commended Cooke, in both internal and external correspondence, for the strides it had taken in working with DNR, the Washington Department of Ecology and WDFW. The actions by DNR’s leadership are perplexing at best, and punitive at worst”, they said. “As a Canadian family company investing significantly in Washington State and creating local jobs, this is very disheartening”.

32,000 juvenile steelhead to be killed

In the release, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific insists that the science does not support statements made by Commissioner Franz that eliminating these farms will save wild fish and natural habitat. “Over the past five years, Cooke has worked cooperatively with regulators, including DNR, to implement independent engineering review of its facilities, enhanced monitoring of water and sediment quality, and increased transparency regarding its operations”, they said. According to the company, all these requirements have been implemented at Cooke’s farms in Washington and show the lack of impact on the environment of its operations.

“Fish farming can mitigate these harms by reducing pressures on wild stocks and also by directly applying the expertise of companies like Cooke to better hatchery and wild salmon recovery efforts“, they highlighted. The company then recalled the number of animals that will have to be slaughtered following the denial of the licenses. “From an animal welfare perspective, with this decision, Commissioner Franz is forcing Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to kill 332,000 juvenile steelhead that were planned to be stocked at Rich Passage and Hope Island in 2023. This is a tragic outcome for fish that should have been healthy, sustainable, food for our communities”.

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In closing, Cooke said that going forward, the company will explore its options with the best interests of its employees in mind. “At this time, we are focused on our employees in Washington State, who are best-in-class multi-generational fish farmers whose livelihood has been put in jeopardy by Commissioner Franz”, said Joel Richardson, Cooke Aquaculture Vice President of Public Relations.

Following the denials of these lease renewals, more announcements are expected. Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz is reviewing policies for salmon net pen aquaculture on all state aquatic lands in Washington and will announce her decision at a press conference along with partners and tribes on Friday, November 18.

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