An international fish-farming company that raises non-native Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound has squandered the goodwill it once might have hoped for in Washington state.
Strong regulatory measures are warranted for Cooke Pacific Aquaculture in the wake of its clearly preventable collapse of a net-pen last August. The failure led to more than 200,000 Atlantic salmon being released into Puget Sound, potentially harming native fish runs.
Cooke, which is part of a larger international fish farm company based in Canada, was fined $332,000 last week by the Washington state Department of Ecology. That is just a start.
A state investigation released Tuesday by three state agencies found Cooke’s failure to maintain pens at Cypress Island were a factor in the collapse of the net pens. Investigators found a 110-ton accumulation of mussels and plants on pen nets, which was pushed by strong tidal currents and resulted in the pens being crushed and broken open.
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Investigators with Ecology, Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources found the accident was preventable. DNR also acted last year to stop any renewal of the lease it gave to Cooke for operation of the Cypress Island facility.
The company responded to the investigation with its own 12-page report disputing that its net pens were poorly maintained. It also questioned the state’s counting of released fish. Cooke spokesmen further claimed they were shut out of the investigation and given only three days to respond to the report’s findings.
The public should be skeptical — of Cooke — which initially tried to blame tides for the collapse.
As legislators from both sides of the aisle push to clamp down on net pens in Puget Sound, one soft approach is further study of the farming practices and risks. Other legislative proposals phase out the farming of non-native fish. Another idea, which Cooke says it supports, is to require that farms use a single sex of fish to prevent reproduction.
Cooke’s favored approach is not enough. The three-agency report indicates that more that 200,000 of the released salmon have not been accounted for, and Puget Sound tribes that fish for native salmon worry about Atlantic salmon competing for scarce fish food. The concern runs from the Squaxin Island Tribe in South Sound to the Lummi tribe near Canada.
It’s fair at this point to ask why farmed non-native fish are even a good idea. Cooke says its operations, which it purchased for $70 million in 2016 from American Gold Seafoods, employs 80 people directly with a payroll of $8.5 million. It adds that its operations support another 100 jobs indirectly and contribute revenues to the state through its payment of aquatic leases and business taxes.
That has value. But the public — and regulators — deserve proof that Cooke can maintain its multiple net pen facilities without further fish releases.