Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s work area and office west of the Coast Guard station on Ediz Hook serves the company’s salmon farm. Photo by Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s work area and office west of the Coast Guard station on Ediz Hook serves the company’s salmon farm. Photo by Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News

Cooke Aquaculture fined $332,000 for Cypress Island farmed salmon escape

The operation also faces possible closure if legislators pass a bill that would ban the use of Atlantic salmon in state aquaculture.

The state Department of Ecology announced Tuesday that Cooke Aquaculture will be penalized for violating the terms of its water quality permits in relation to the company’s net pen failure last August.

Cooke operates four net-pen facilities in Washington state waters, floating operations in which Atlantic salmon are farmed for food. The department flagged the company for poor net cleaning at those facilities, failure to follow protocol, and insufficient attention to engineering, resulting in a fine of $332,000.

Cooke’s net pen facility on Cypress Island collapsed last summer, releasing hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. The event prompted Washington state to terminate the company’s lease.

Ecology worked in collaboration with the state departments of Natural Resources and Fish & Wildlife to investigate the net pen failure, releasing a report on their findings Tuesday. The report attributed the collapse to a lack of maintenance on Cooke’s part.

Natural Resources said in the report that more than 10 tons of mussels and other marine organisms had built up on the net pens, overwhelming the systems that keep the pens afloat. The department said proper maintenance could easily have prevented this build up, and that the company knew about the facility’s poor condition before the collapse took place.

“The collapse was not the result of natural causes,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz during a news conference Tuesday. “Cooke’s disregard caused this disaster and recklessly put our state’s aquatic ecosystem at risk.”

DNR also said the company failed to accurately report the numbers of fish that escaped, which hindered agency investigations. The department said Cooke’s original reports put the number of fish escaped at around 160,000, while the investigation concluded that between 243,000 and 263,000 fish escaped. This puts the number of fish unaccounted for between 186,000 and 206,000.

“Cooke made this situation even more difficult by under-reporting the number of fish that escaped during the net-pen collapse, and over-reporting the number it recovered afterward,” said Amy Windrope, Fish & Wildlife’s north Puget Sound regional director, in a press release.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, is the prime sponsor on a bill that would ban the use of Atlantic salmon in state aquaculture, essentially bringing Cooke’s Washington operations to a halt.

“This sort of negligent, untruthful behavior is unacceptable for any corporation in Washington state,” Ranker said in a press release. The senator said such behavior is especially alarming when it “can have such dire consequences to our environment and to our economy when things go wrong.”

But Cooke called the report “incomplete and inaccurate,” and said it would create “unfair prejudice” against the company among members of the Legislature.

The company said the report’s fish count estimates are based on a flawed method that involves using average fish weight, while Cooke employees counted each fish. While Joel Richardson, the company’s vice president of public relations, admitted the company fell behind in maintenance, he said they have since tried to cooperate with the agencies involved in the investigation.

“We cooperated fully with the investigation and stood ready to provide expertise, background and context to help the investigators in their work,” Richardson said in a press release. “Unfortunately, we don’t believe the public or lawmakers are getting a complete and accurate picture from this report.”

Cooke said the company wanted to participate in the investigation, but was excluded from doing so by the agencies involved. Cooke said state agencies did include two Native American tribes in their investigation, tribes that had been calling for a ban on Cooke’s net pen operations.

“Excluding Cooke but including net-pen opponents stacks the deck against Cooke,” Richardson said. “Tribes, lawmakers, Cooke, the public — we all deserve to know the truth, and this report should be driven by a full and accurate understanding of the facts.”

Cooke said the company was given only three days to respond to the investigation, and that their response was received only three hours before Franz’s news conference. The company said this demonstrates state agencies’ unwillingness to acknowledge Cooke’s concerns.

Cooke Aquaculture has 30 days to appeal the Department of Ecology’s fine.

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

More in Northwest

PNW plant-based foods could help in climate fight

Animal products create a lot of emissions, but veggie alternatives are coming from King County.

The language of the original bill prohibited privately-owned detainment facilities from being contracted by local, state, or federal government entities, but a last-second amendment was adopted to substantially narrow the focus of the legislation. File photo
Lawmakers flinch on banning for-profit detention facilities

Last minute amendment exempted ICE detainment facility.

A proposal to make King County Metro fares free for low-income households could be approved in the coming months. File photo
King County considers free transit for low-income residents

The program would target those at or below 80 percent of the federal poverty level.

Federal Way resident Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, 17, died Jan. 27, 2017. Courtesy photo
Law enforcement challenges report on sting operation that killed Federal Way teen

King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight’s findings rattle Sheriff’s Office, police union.

Unstable housing? Apply for Section 8

Applications open in February for housing vouchers

In 2018, the city of Seattle approved and then repealed a head tax within a month. It would have levied a $275 per employee tax on businesses grossing more than $20 million annually. Sound Publishing file photo
County head tax bill passes committee

Bill would let King County levy a tax on businesses to fund housing and address homelessness.

Gov. Jay Inslee signs the first bill of the 2020 legislative session into law. On the right stands the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who is wearing a red tie. Photo by Cameron Sheppard, WNPA News Service
Gov. Inslee signs tax bill to help fund higher education

Law shifts a portion of the tax burden to large tech companies.

King County Metro’s battery-electric bus. Photo courtesy of kingcounty.gov
King County Metro bus fleet will be electrified by 2035

Future base in South King County would house hundreds of the zero-emission vehicles.

Three-quarters of the suicide deaths among children ages 10 to 14 are caused by firearms, according to a new report from the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program at the University of Washington. File photo
King County studies youth gun violence amid rising suicides

It’s unclear what’s driving the trend.

State Capitol Building, Olympia, Washington. File photo
Mental illness: Lawmakers propose plan to treat without consent

Concerns raised on the guardianship and loss of rights for incapacitated persons.

High tides, as seen in this file photo of Raymond’s Willapa Landing Park in Pacific County, could become the norm in the future due to sea level rise. Sound Publishing file photo
UW summarizes Washington climate impact on water

The report localizes information from the United Nations.

Snohomish County man is first U.S. case of new coronavirus

A man in his 30s was hospitalized in Everett after contracting the virus during a trip to China.