Cooke quits: no further court battle over Washington steelhead trout farm leases

The company claims it is resigning because Washington DNR is delaying its access to records that would allow it to explain the arbitrary basis for the lease denials.
Cooke Aquaculture Pacific steelhead trout farm at Hope Island, Washington, 2022. The company quits and will not pursue its appeal against the Washington DNR for reinstatement of its leases at this fish farm and the Rich Passage one, both in Puget Sound.

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific steelhead trout farm at Hope Island, Washington, 2022. The company quits and will not pursue its appeal against the Washington DNR for reinstatement of its leases at this fish farm and the Rich Passage one, both in Puget Sound.

Photo: Cooke.

Cooke quits. It gives up after more than a year of court battling the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) seeking reinstatement of its leases at the Rich Passage and Hope Island steelhead trout farms in Puget Sound, Washington.

The Canadian company blames Washington DNR for hindering its lawyers' access to the records needed to argue the appeal against the denial of the licenses to the point that, at this rate, it would take them six to seven years to get them. In the meantime, more than 100 employees have lost their jobs as a consequence of the farm closures.

A long and multi-branched confrontation

The announcement that Cooke Aquaculture Pacific has filed a motion with the Washington State Superior Court to dismiss its appeal against Washington DNR seeking reinstatement of the company's leases at the Rich Passage and Hope Island steelhead trout farms in Puget Sound is today's news, although it is also the consequence of a long-running standoff that has several branches.

This particular court action was brought by Cooke in response to DNR's refusal to provide it with sufficient time to safely harvest its fish and remove the farm equipment from the wáter "following DNR's arbitrary and punitive lease renewal denials in 2022." First, it appealed the denial of its trout farming lease licenses in Washington and, after failing to do so, returned to court seeking a preliminary injunction "to keep employees safe."

The fish farmer then got a break. The court granted the company an injunction for the safe removal of fish and equipment from its steelhead trout sites at Rich Passage and Hope Island in Puget Sound and pushed back the initial deadline set by the DNR from Jan. 14 to April 14, 2023. A decision the company has now appreciated again by announcing the withdrawal of the appeal.

"Cooke is grateful that in January 2023 Judge Indu Thomas of the Superior Court of the State of Washington swiftly enjoined DNR from enforcing unrealistic deadlines without endangering its employees," the release states. However, shortly thereafter, in May 2023, the same judge dismissed Cooke's claims against the Washington DNR.

More than 100 fish farming professionals forced out of their jobs

These fish farms have been present at the same locations for more than 40 years. According to Cooke, throughout that time, scientific studies and monitoring data consistently demonstrated they had no adverse impact on the environment. It also recalled that in 2019, the Washington DNR approved Cooke's five-year trout farming permit after conducting a thorough review under the Environmental Policy Act. Despite all this, jobs could not be saved.

"As a result of DNR Commissioner Hilary Franz’s arbitrary decision, over 100 Washington fish farming professionals including farm managers, veterinarians, hatchery technicians, truck drivers, processing plant workers and vessel crew have since been forced out of their jobs by Franz following the baseless closure of locally established fish farms," Cooke Aquaculture Pacific statement reads.

In the release, the company also emphasizes that aquaculture and its associated supply chain are a vital part of job creation and domestic food production, especially in the United States where 90% of seafood consumed is imported and this industry can help curb that massive seafood deficit.

"As such, Cooke continues to work with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and pursuing projects that allow the Tribe to provide for its people and that foster sustainable seafood production on the Olympic Peninsula," the statement continues. However, this project to farm steelhead trout is also in jeopardy because of DNR's decisions.

The Tribe also took legal action against the Wahington DNR for banning net-pen aquaculture in Puget Sound, an action joined later by the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance (NWAA) on behalf of its members.

In the penultimate chapter of this court saga, the same judge, Indu Thomas, ruled that Washington State's commercial net-pen aquaculture ban "has no legal effect." The court considered Commissioner Franz's order to be "an internal policy directive" to begin the regulatory process regarding commercial net pens on the State's aquatic lands, and not a ban on commercial net-pen aquaculture.

Another six to seven years to produce all responsive records

However, even despite this latest encouraging court decision on the future of aquaculture in Washington State, Cooke has decided to give up arguing that the DNR is hindering the work of his lawyers.

"Since the injunction was issued against DNR in January 2023, Cooke has endeavored to obtain public records from DNR that it believes are needed to allow for a fair appeal hearing before the Court on the issue of whether DNR properly denied Cooke’s lease applications," the company says.

"Despite the request being pending for almost a year, DNR refused to work with Cooke on the timeline to provide records and has never provided any substantive responses that would allow Cooke to explain to the Court the arbitrary basis for the lease denials," it continues.

Thus, according to Cooke, based on the number of records the Washington DNR claims are responsive to the fish farmer's request, at the rate the Department of Natural Resources has produced them to date, it would take another six to seven years to produce all responsive records. A situation Cooke considers "untenable and inconceivable."

As such, the company considers that an additional hearing on this matter is futile without Cooke having the opportunity to review the DNR's internal records and ensure that the record before the Court is complete. "Such a hearing would be a waste of judicial resources and everyone’s time, therefore, Cooke has filed a motion to dismiss its appeal," the Canadian family company concludes.

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