New Brunswick

Salmon escape leads Cooke into legal fight with Washington state

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific is challenging an attempt by Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources to terminate the company's lease to operate a salmon farm in Port Angeles.

Cooke challenges state's termination of salmon lease after review of company's operations

Drone footage shows the mangled remains of a Cooke Aquaculture Pacific net pen near Cypress Island in Washington state that collapsed in August. About 160,000 Atlantic salmon escaped. (Beau Garreau)

The escape of more than 160,000 salmon from a Cooke Aquaculture pen in Washington last year has led to a legal battle between the company and the state.

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific is challenging a decision by the state's Department of Natural Resources to terminate the company's ease to operate a salmon farm in Port Angeles, about 128 kilometres west of Seattle.

Cooke has said the "unlawful attempt" is baseless and not in good faith.

The salmon escaped when a pen collapsed Aug. 19 at another of the company's eight farms in the area — Deepwater Bay Site 2, near Cypress Island —  but the incident triggered a review of Cooke's operations.

The state said it discovered three lease violations at the Port Angeles farm and filed to terminate the lease.

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 4, Cooke asks that the termination be stopped, arguing the state's actions are, in part, politically motivated. Farming Atlantic salmon in the area has been a contentious issue.

Cooke has said the lease termination would result in the loss of "scarce rural jobs." The Port Angeles farm employs 10 people.

The Department of Natural Resources and Hilary Franz, the commissioner of public lands, are supposed to respond by early February.

But Franz called the suit "meritless."

Atlantic salmon caught in Puget Sound after the pen collapsed. The pen failure triggered a state review of Cooke's farming operations in the area. (Beau Garreau)

Lease violation

Franz announced in December the end of the net pen lease after the review she launched discovered the Port Angeles operation had violated the agreement in the following ways:

  • Cooke's net pens were outside the leasehold.

  • Two net pen anchor chains were not connected and a third had an open link, which was "vulnerable to complete failure."

  • The company did not replace exposed flotation material to prevent Styrofoam from disintegrating into the water.

The political opposition to salmon farming stands in the face of decades of scientific study.- Cooke lawsuit document

"My duty to the people of Washington is to protect our state lands and waters, while also generating revenue for schools, essential services, and restoration of natural areas like Puget Sound," Franz said in a statement at the time.

"It is now clear that Cooke has been violating the lease terms for its Port Angeles net pens. In light of this violation, and in fulfilment of my commitment to protect our lands and waters, I am terminating the lease."

Cooke, which started in New Brunswick more than 30 years ago, bought the Port Angeles farm from Icicle in May 2016. The state said Icicle had agreed to move its pens within the authorized area by Oct. 1, 2016.

State agencies are also investigating the Deepwater Bay pen failure. The final report is expected in January.

Cooke response

"The Department of Natural Resources, then led by Commissioner Franz's predecessor, approved the transfer of those farm leases at that time and raised no concerns or objections to the manner in which Cooke's predecessor company was managing the leased aquatic area," said Joel Richardson, Cooke's vice-president of public relations, said in a statement after the company filed the suit.

"We can only assume that the recent decision to terminate the Port Angeles lease is based upon misinformation or a misunderstanding of the facts and history related to this site."

Nothing the company or state has said about the case has been tested in court.

Joel Richardson, vice-president of public relations for Cooke Aquaculture, says the state government must have been acting on misinformation when it moved to terminate the company's lease. (Sarah Trainor/CBC)

Cooke also argued in the lawsuit the company identified the issues with the anchor chains, which were set to be replaced by mid-December. Cooke alleges the Department of Natural Resources did not follow up with the company for an update before terminating the lease.

The company also said it has fixed the exposed Styrofoam problem.

The suit gives Franz and the Department of Natural Resources 20 days to respond.

"My team will vigorously defend the termination against the meritless lawsuit," Franz said in a statement to CBC News. "I encourage Cooke Aquaculture to drop this lawsuit and work collaboratively with the Department of Natural Resource to safely close down the facility."

Political backlash

Republican Jim Walsh, a state representative, filed a bill to ban Atlantic Salmon aquaculture in state waters. (

Following the Cypress Island escape, state legislators called for a ban on Atlantic salmon aquaculture.

"Our native stocks are like a person whose immune system is already compromised," Republican representative Jim Walsh said in December. "And the introduction of the non-native species into our public waters is like a cold."

In August, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered to a hold on any new permits for net pens in the wake of the escape.

Cooke disputed any claims of that Atlantic salmon and salmon farming have a negative impact on the ecosystem, noting several studies suggest "no credible evidence."

"The political opposition to salmon farming stands in the face of decades of scientific study," the lawsuit stated.