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Washington state sued over Cooke Aquaculture plan to raise steelhead in Puget Sound

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Four nonprofit organizations sued the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) this week  over its decision to grant a permit allowing Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to farm steelhead in Puget Sound and the greater Salish Sea.

The organizations say the department’s environmental analysis of Cooke’s five-year application to farm female, mostly sterile steelhead in net pens was “deficient” and failed to fully account for the environmental impacts of Cooke’s planned operations.

The legal challenge in King County Superior Court brings a long-running dispute between the Salish Sea fish farmers and environmental advocacy groups again to court, which could entangle the company’s ambitions in legal muck.

Cooke has been the focus of legal and regulatory attention following the collapse in 2017 of a net pen facility, which allowed more than 200,000 Atlantic salmon to escape into the Salish Sea.

The company remains months away from being able to stock net pens with steelhead. It must amend water quality permits with the Department of Ecology and it needs new aquatic lands leases at some fish-farming sites from the Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources.

The lawsuit, filed by Friends of the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Wild Fish Conservancy and the Center for Food Safety, challenges how WDFW viewed Cooke’s steelhead proposal before the agency’s decision last month to grant the permit.

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Cooke must stop raising Atlantic salmon in its net pens by 2022, because state lawmakers voted to phase out farming nonnative fish in Washington waters two years ago.

The litigants argue WDFW should have considered the end of Atlantic salmon rearing, and empty net pens, as part of its analysis of how the species switch would affect the environment.

“When the law passed, it essentially ended the industry,” said Hallie Templeton, a senior oceans campaigner with Friends of the Earth, a plaintiff. “That changed the baseline.”

The litigants also say WDFW did a poor job assessing other environmental impacts, that the agency’s measures to mitigate potential harm won’t work well enough and that WDFW “relied on stale information” for its review because the base proposal for net pen fish farming dates back to 1990.

The nonprofit groups say WDFW should have prepared a full environmental impact statement under state law because the pivot to steelhead would be so significant.

Amy Windrope, WDFW’s deputy director, said in a statement that switching from Atlantic salmon to steelhead did not meet the legal threshold for a more thorough level of review than what WDFW performed.

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“Our determination was made through a careful review of the current science and included approximately 150 reference documents. We did refer to the 1990 Environmental Impact statement, but it was not the basis of our decision,” Windrope said, adding that the switch to steelhead “would not pose significant adverse environmental impacts.”

Joel Richardson, a spokesman for Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, declined to comment.

Jeanne McKnight, of the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance, in an emailed statement described the environmental groups’ action as a “frivolous lawsuit” intended to “delay the project,” and added that the lawsuit would harm the region’s seafood economy.

Cooke is partnering with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe at its Port Angeles net pen site.

Kurt Grinnell, a tribal council member and the CEO of Jamestown Seafood and Aquaculture, said the tribe sees great economic opportunity in raising steelhead in net pens.

Steelhead were once abundant in nearby streams, Grinnell said.

“In the last couple decades, it slowed way down,” he said. Raising native stocks “will help offset losses,” provide food locally and could boost fish processing in Port Angeles, he said.

Grinnell said he was confident in WDFW’s analysis.

We feel the state of Washington did a great deal of research. They took their time. They crossed every T and dotted every I,” he said. 

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