State fines Cooke, promises word on future aquaculture

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Fate of Cooke Aquaculture and of Washington salmon-farming, generally, appear to hang in the balance after multi-agency investigation

The U.S. business of Canadian salmon grower Cooke Aquaculture — which has a lawsuit filed against the State of Washington — has criticized an investigation of its Cypress Island pen-array collapse in August 2017 as “incomplete and inaccurate”, after it was told on Tuesday to pay a USD 332,000 fine and blamed for the Salish Sea mass-escapee event.

“Negligence and poor maintenance” were cited as the main reasons for the collapse, although the State had earlier approved of the company’s purchase of a pen arrays understood to be in poor condition. Missed net cleanings led to too much marine fouling,  State agencies reported.

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“The investigation found that each of Cooke’s ten nets weighed more than 11 tons” instead of their regular 2 t, their report said. “An excessive buildup of mussels” and other marine life (some 110 t of it) was “the primary cause of the August net pen collapse”.

Decision day
The company criticized the State’s multi-agency draft report on the Cypress Island net pen collapse, saying inaccuracies have now led to erroneous conclusions. The state went live with its version and statements on the future of Cooke and aquaculture off Washington would be made in the coming days.

Interestingly, the State also concluded that, “Properly designed and maintained net pens would have withstood the tidal currents of August 19”. The conclusion by State agencies is at odds with those — including at least one bloc of lawmakers — wanting to blame all “salmon-farming”, a source of jobs and income for the State.

Mainly, however, Cooke itself was under fire. State agencies concluded that Cooke “considered but did not” in July — after “10 mooring points” were broken by strong currents — replace the bio-fouled nets; begin their salmon harvest early or increase monitoring of the net pens and have a tug on standby when strong currents were again expected on August 19.

Legislative rush
Cooke maintained on Tuesday that it was shut out of an investigation that failed to seek aquaculture expertise.

“As a result, investigators with limited experience in aquaculture or net-pen operations have produced an inaccurate and misleading document that appears to be intended to fuel the push by aquaculture opponents to put Cooke out of business in Washington state,” stated company spokesperson, Joel Richardson.

Richardson said the report, “2017 Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Net Pen Failure: An Investigation and Review” by the state’s Ecology, Fish & Wildlife, and Natural Resources departments was “timed to influence the Legislature’s ongoing deliberations about bills related to aquaculture, including proposals that would effectively ban salmon farming in Washington”.

Stacked deck
Richardson said Cooke was given just three days to provide feedback on the 266-page draft report and was instructed not to dispute the report’s analysis or conclusions. “We don’t believe the public or lawmakers are getting a complete and accurate picture from this report,” he stated.

Meanwhile, “Two Native American tribes which have repeatedly called for the ban of Cooke’s operations were given full access to the process and allowed to provide comments and observations during the deliberations. Excluding Cooke but including net-pen opponents stacks the deck against Cooke,” Richardson stated.