Cooke warns lawmakers of looming NAFTA battle

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Canadian salmon grower Cooke Aquaculture said Tuesday that it will seek North American Free-Trade Agreement arbitration in its fight against Washington’s campaign to eradicate its fish farms from the Salish Sea, where it says it has invested USD 76 million dollars.

In its first official response to inconclusive but punitive-looking inspections of two more of its fish farms, Cooke made what might be its final public pitch to Washington State lawmakers before they vote to approve a ban on the state’s surviving salmon-farming industry. The State’s environment commissioner has already annulled two Cooke leases.

At the core of its NAFTA arguments is that the State had approved the company’s purchase of a bankrupt company’s beaten-up assets.  Cooke warned that NAFTA judges might also hear that it was the state’s Department of Natural Resources that approved of Cooke’s operating leases based on the wreck the company had taken over.

Read State fines Cooke, promises word on future aquaculture

“At no time during the purchase did any state agency or official, including DNR or the Commission of Public Lands, express any concern about Cooke’s acquisition of Icicle’s production assets or the possibility of salmon escapes, or suggest in any way that Icicle’s operations were out of compliance with any state laws, regulations or leases.

“In February 2017, with some of its acquired nets pens near the end of their useful life, Cooke applied for DNR permits to install new state-of-the-art pens, including at the Cypress facility, once the pens were emptied of stocked fish,” the Company said.

Disproportionate Online outlet KUOW had smartly checked the record and found the DNR had registered the following non-Cooke mass escapee events: 107,000 lost in 1996 when an anchor line failed; 369,000 lost moving away from an algae bloom and 115,000 lost during a strong tidal

Since the August, incident, Cooke has spent USD 3.5 million on an escapee recovery plan; USD 1.3 million to compensate local fishermen for retrieving lost fish and mooring analysis for new mooring plans at all its facilities.

Read Cooke Aquaculture sues Washington over lost permit

Joel Richardson, vice president of public relations for Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, said the response of state lawmakers and other officials seeking to outlaw farmed Atlantic salmon in Washington waters is disproportional to the actual impact of the August incident and discriminated against a foreign company.

Political attack “This response is also discriminatory against Cooke, a Canadian company. We note that the Legislature did not seek bans of U.S.-based companies or industries in the past after pipeline explosions, refinery accidents, oil spills or floods of raw sewage. Unlike those accidents involving domestic companies or agencies, not one human was injured and not a single wild-fish was killed by the accident occurring at the company’s Cypress facility,” Richardson said.

“The difference in how Cooke is being treated is legally significant,” he said, pointing a key NAFTA tenant surrounding political attacks on industry. Puget Sound has, indeed, seen mass escapes before Cypress island.

“Not one of those incidents resulted in lease termination by DNR or even so much as a single penalty by the state, let alone an attempted ban by the Legislature. The only difference between then and now is ownership by Cooke, a foreign investor,” he said.

Richardson said Cooke had not been treated fairly and Washington had “attempted confiscation of Cooke’s $76 million investment” in the state. He seemed to be warning NAFTA would see the same signs of economic protectionism against Cooke as a foreign company.

“There’s a trade agreement that provides for relief in exactly this type of situation where a foreign company is treated worse than, and is disadvantaged against, its domestic counterparts,” said Richardson. “If the Legislature approves a ban on our operations, Cooke will seek to recover our confiscated investment, plus costs and lost profits, through mandatory arbitration against the State of Washington under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“We respectfully request the Senate to postpone a vote on HB 2957 until it has had an opportunity to consider the possibility of being required to pay Cooke for the confiscation of its investment.”