A Washington Superior Court decision that would allow Cooke Aquaculture to transit its open-water net pens to raise domesticated steelhead instead of Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound will be challenged in a higher court, four environmental groups say. The new lawsuit was announced this week by Wild Fish Conservancy, the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth.
They are seeking to require the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to conduct a full environmental review of Cooke Aquaculture’s plan. A key concern cited by the plaintiffs in this case is that domesticated fish would potentially harm endangered native Puget Sound steelhead through interbreeding and passing on viruses, parasites and other pathogens.
Cooke Aquaculture, with headquarters in New Brunswick, Canada, produces farm-raised salmon, shrimp, sea bass, and other seafood.
In 2017 one of the company’s net-pen structures collapsed in Puget Sound, causing the escape of as many as 273,000 Atlantic salmon. While the escaped farmed fish did not spread in Washington waters, concerns continued that the farmed fish could be a threat to native salmon.
In late November of 2019, Cooke Aquaculture agreed to a settlement of $2.75 million in legal fees and to fund Puget Sound restoration projects, to bring closure to a Clean Water Act lawsuit filed after the net pen collapse.
According to Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, “the current deficient review sets an unacceptably low bar for what level of risk and uncertainty are acceptable when it comes to making decisions with the potential to endanger the health of Puget Sound.”
Sophia Ressler, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the full environmental review is needed to fully understand risks of this project to state waters and endangered wildlife.
During the public comment period in the fall of 2019, thousands of residents of Washington along with various organizations filed their comments with the state agency, in an overwhelming call for the state wildlife department to stop the fish farm proposal and draft a new environmental impact statement for open-water aquaculture net pens.
The state agency chose instead to issue a permit that relied on an analysis of 1990, before Puget Sound steelhead, killer whales and salmon species were listed as threatened or endangered.
Washington is the only state on the Pacific coast that permits these fish farming facilities.
Earlier this year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to transition all open-water industrial aquaculture in British Columbia to land-based facilities by 2025.