Washington Department of Ecology Fines Cooke Aquaculture Pacific for Negligent Release of Atlantic Salmon into Puget Sound

Photo from: Department of Natural Resources -- Drone image of Cypress Island net pen

Anacortes, WA – The Washington Department of Ecology has penalized Cooke Aquaculture Pacific $332,000 for the negligent release of Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound. Cooke violated their water quality permit leading up to, and during, the net pen collapse near Cypress Island in August of 2017.

Net pen structures are large enclosures that are anchored to the seabed. Atlantic salmon, as many as 305,000 to a pen, are grown from juvenile to adult size and are fed pellets that are cast into the water. Controversy about net pen aquaculture centers on concern about escapes, pollution, and competition with native salmon runs.

Cooke’s net pen structure suffered damage in late July 2017, but Cooke is reported to have grossly underrepresented the severity of that event to Ecology and other regulatory agencies. Shortcut repairs were then made without professional engineering review, and failed.

Specifically, Cooke Aquaculture has been fined for violating the following conditions of their water quality permit:

  • Poor net cleaning and maintenance
  • Failing to following required protocol for repairs
  • Insufficient attention to engineering

Department of Ecology Director, Maia Bellon, had this to say about the incident:

This investigation confirms Cooke Aquaculture was negligent in operating its net pen. What’s even worse is that Cooke absolutely could have – and should have – prevented this incident.

Poor maintenance led to excessive buildup of mussels, seaweed, and other marine life. A clean net weighs less than two tons. The investigation found that each of Cooke’s ten nets weighed more than 11 tons. This increased pressure on the nets from currents, and it eventually overpowered the anchoring system. This likely caused both the damage in July and the catastrophic failure in August.

Hillary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands, noted this about the incident:

The collapse was not the result of natural causes. Cooke’s disregard caused this disaster and recklessly put our state’s aquatic ecosystem at risk.

An investigative report – authored by the departments of Natural Resources (DNR), Ecology, and Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) – found Cooke at fault for the failure of the Cypress Island net pen. You can learn more about the findings on the inter-agency incident webpage.

The report also found that Cook Aquaculture misrepresented the number of fish it harvested when the pen collapsed. According to the report, there were 305,000 fish in the net pen prior to failure. Cook reported harvesting/extracting 145,000 fish from the collapsed net pen. The investigation concluded that Cooke could have only have extracted between 42,000 and 62,000 fish. Therefore, between 243,000 and 263,000 fish actually escaped. Previous estimates, based on Cooke’s reports, put the number of escaped fish at 160,000. Of the escaped fish 57,000 have been caught, leaving between 186,000 and 206,000 Atlantic salmon unaccounted for. Amy Windrope, the WDFW North Puget Sound regional director, stated:

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.

Ecology penalties can be appealed to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board within 30 days. Money collected from water pollution fines is placed in the state’s Coastal Protection Fund that provides grants for water quality improvement projects.


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