By Lynda V. Mapes / The Seattle Times
Cooke Aquaculture will not be allowed to restock its Cypress Island net-pen farm with Atlantic salmon, a Thurston County Superior Court Judge has ruled.
The company’s license to operate the farm was terminated by Hilary Franz, the Commissioner of Public Lands, after a catastrophic collapse last August led to the release of more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon.
Cooke had sought a preliminary injunction to restock the pen while it worked to overturn the termination with a lawsuit against the department. But Judge John Skinder on Friday sided with the department, which insisted the farm remain fallow.
Cooke has two remaining pens at the Cypress Island farm. The middle pen of the three was destroyed in the collapse, and the company has since removed it.
The company had sought to resume business at the rest of the site, pending the outcome of its lawsuit against the termination of the lease by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in February.
Cooke wanted to restock the farm with nearly 800,000 more juvenile Atlantic salmon.
Franz terminated the lease on the basis of an investigation by three state agencies that found Cooke entirely at fault for the pen collapse. The company allowed 110 tons of mussels and other sea life to build up on the nets at the farm, investigators found, causing it to collapse.
The company also misled state agencies and the public about the cause of the collapse and the size of the fish escape, investigators found.
The company had blamed the collapse on unusually strong currents and even the solar eclipse last August. But the collapse was due solely to the company’s lack of proper maintenance, investigators found.
“Today’s decision is a win for the people and waters of Washington,” Franz said in a news release. “I encourage Cooke to drop this baseless lawsuit and work with us to safely and quickly wind up its operations at this site.”
Joel Richardson, vice president for public relations for Cooke, said the company does not comment about ongoing litigation.
Cooke has also sued over termination by DNR for lease violations at Cooke’s Port Angeles farm. There, the DNR is allowing the company to grow its existing Atlantics and harvest them by June 2019. Then the department wants Cooke to remove its operation.
At Cypress Island, Cooke’s net pens were already empty, and DNR wants to keep them that way.
The escape at Cypress Island led to a public outcry against Atlantic salmon farming in Washington. The escaped fish raised widespread concern about possible competition with wild fish or spread of diseases.
The Washington state Legislature last session passed and Gov. Jay Inslee has signed into law a phaseout of Atlantic salmon net-pen farming in Washington, with no new leases allowed after the current ones expire by 2025.
Cooke, based in New Brunswick, Canada, is one of the largest aquaculture companies in the world, with operations in six countries and about 6,000 employees. It bought its Washington farms in 2016.
With the passage of the phaseout bill, the company has said it will take the time it needs to decide what to do next with its Washington operations. All options are on the table, the company has said, including farming another species.