Lawsuit Challenges Washington State Industrial Ocean Fish Farm Permit

Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit challenging a Washington state decision permitting Cooke Aquaculture to raise domesticated steelhead in open-water coastal net pens in Puget Sound.

The lawsuit contends that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) failed to evaluate the scientific evidence showing that these fish feedlots would harm federally listed steelhead, salmon and Southern Resident killer whale, degrade water quality and damage the overall health of Puget Sound.

In the wake of the escape of some 250,000 Atlantic salmon from Cooke’s Cypress Island facility in 2017, the state passed a law banning net pen farming of non-native finfish by 2022. Cooke subsequently applied to the state to change the variety of species it could raise in these floating factory farms. In January WDFW, citing an environmental analysis done in 1990, issued a permit to Cooke Aquaculture.

“It’s outrageous that once again the state is leaving the oversight of this industry to the public,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, which filed the lawsuit with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth.

Beardslee said that after the Cypress net pen collapsed their research found that nearly every fish that escaped was infected with a pathogenic exotic salmon virus that went undetected by WDFW and unreported by Cooke.

During the public comment period last fall, thousands of residents and organizations urged the state to draft a new environmental impact statement on open-water aquaculture net pens. Concerns were raised by commercial harvesters, environmental advocates, sport anglers, legislators, and tribal governments from the Puget Sound area.

Washington is the only Pacific coast state that allows these facilities. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced plans to transition all open-water industrial aquaculture in British Columbia to land-based facilities by 2025.