Washington Sued Over Steelhead Farming in Puget Sound

(CN) – Environmental and conservation groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife over the agency’s recent decision to allow Cooke Aquaculture to rear farmed steelhead trout in Puget Sound.

The suit, filed in the Superior Court of Washington, alleges that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a permit to allow steelhead fish feedlots, a type of fish-farming practice, to operate in the complex waterways of Puget Sound without any consideration of the consequences they would have on the environment. 

The suit claims that such feedlot pens could cause severe damage to Puget Sound’s water quality and local populations of salmon and killer whales.

Male and female steelhead trout. (NOAA)

This decision by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife comes nearly three years after Cooke’s Cypress Island facility suffered a significant pen failure that allowed 250,000 Atlantic salmon to escape, many of which carried a dangerous virus into the wild. The state of Washington responded to this devastating failure by passing a law that would ban all net pen aquaculture of Atlantic salmon by the year 2022. Cooke Aquaculture was also fined $332,000 for the incident.

The new Cooke Aquaculture permit, however, was able to maneuver around the law through a loophole that would allow the rearing of steelhead, as opposed to the explicitly stated Atlantic salmon.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, which is one of the groups bringing the suit, says that the permit approval is incomprehensible given the recent history of such fish farming practices.

“It’s outrageous that once again the state is leaving the oversight of this industry to the public,” Beardslee said in a statement. “After the Cypress net pen collapsed, our research discovered that nearly every fish that escaped was infected with a pathogenic exotic salmon virus that had been undetected by WDFW and unreported by Cooke. Our litigation has won settlements many times larger than the penalties levied by the state, and the state has left it to us and the pens’ neighbors to detect serious problems. Given this history, it is beyond comprehension that WDFW would grant this permit without first completing a comprehensive assessment of its effects on our salmon, our sound, and our killer whales.”

The conservation and environmental groups bringing the suit claim that prior to issuing the new permit to Cooke Aquaculture for steelhead rearing, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had a regulatory obligation to prepare an environmental impact statement that would detail the kind of influence that the practice would have on local wildlife. 

The suit alleges that this duty was essentially ignored by the department, and as a result, the population health of federally protected orcas and other fish species around Puget Sound could be in serious jeopardy.

The suit alleges that in order to justify the permit, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife utilized environmental analysis information for 1990, well before many of the fish species at the heart of this dispute were even federally classified as either endangered or threatened.

Amy van Saun, counsel for the Center for Food Safety’s Pacific Northwest office, another plaintiff, says that the new permit does not fully reflect the desire of Washington residents to see their waterways and natural environments free from these commercial practices – particularly given that Washington is the only Pacific state that allows these kinds of facilities.  

“Washington state needs to stop giving away our public waters and wild species to private interests — factory fish farms do not belong in Puget Sound. Washington officials are accountable not just to industry, but to the people of Washington, who want wild coasts and invaluable species protected from companies that do not respect our special places,” van Saun said in a statement.

The plaintiffs’ request that the Cooke Aquaculture permit be set aside and that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife should not attempt to renew the permit until it has properly assessed the environmental impact of the permit and comply with environmental regulations.

Representatives from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife did not immediately respond to request to requests for comment Tuesday. 

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