Cooke Aquaculture Pacific has fired back at the state and its lands commissioner over a recent decision to terminate its lease for an Atlantic salmon farming operation in Port Angeles.
Cooke filed a lawsuit Thursday, Jan. 4, saying the state Department of Natural Resources and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz had no basis to terminate its 10-year lease Dec. 15.
DNR has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit filed in Clallam County Superior Court.
Cooke, which is raising 690,000 Atlantic salmon in net pens in Port Angles Harbor, would “suffer significant damage” if DNR’s decision is allowed to stand, according to the complaint.
“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,” Cooke spokesman Joel Richardson said in a Jan. 5 statement.
In canceling the lease, Franz cited violations such as Styrofoam discharges, a defective anchoring system and operating 500 feet outside of its leasehold area by placing its anchors outside the boundaries set in the agreement.
Franz, the elected head of DNR, said the basis for terminating the lease was made clear to the company and the public.
“My team will vigorously defend the termination against this meritless lawsuit,” Franz said.
“I encourage Cooke Aquaculture to drop this lawsuit and work cooperatively with the Department of Natural Resources to safely close down the facility.”
Cooke owns and operates eight commercial salmon farms in the state, including one near Cypress Island that collapsed in August, spilling tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound area.
Cooke’s Cypress Island facility held about 305,000 adult Atlantic salmon. In October, about 100,000 fish remained unaccounted for, according to The Associated Press, which said that roughly 145,000 fish were recovered from damaged nets at the facility, while the rest were captured by tribal fishermen and others.
Gov. Jay Inslee directed the state Department of Ecology to put a moratorium new permits for net pen operations in the wake of the Aug. 19 collapse in Deepwater Bay off Cypress Island.
“The Deepwater failure was widely covered by Washington media and became a cause célèbre for certain environmental groups and tribal organizations,” the lawsuit said.
“The political opposition to salmon farming stands in the face of decades of scientific study.”
In response to the escape of Atlantic salmon, the state Legislature is expected to consider this session a two-year moratorium on new or extensions of leases for net pens.
“Farmed Atlantic salmon have no predatory instinct and do not eat if they escape, and, although they may persist for months after the escape on fat reserves, those escaped fish ultimately expire,” the Cooke lawsuit said.
“Despite the clear scientific evidence that neither native fish nor the marine environment are impacted by salmon farming in Washington, political opponents of salmon farming have sought to capitalize on the Deepwater Bay collapse as a basis to remove all salmon farms from Puget Sound.”
Cooke has invested $4.5 million in the Port Angeles fish farm and has committed another $1.6 million, according to the lawsuit.
The company employs 10 people at its Port Angeles farm. Those worker support 25 dependants and have an average of 18 years experience with Cooke and its predecessors.
“Their jobs depend on the continuing operation of Cooke’s Port Angeles farm,” the lawsuit said.
When Cooke bought Icicle Foods’ four fish farms in 2016, the acquisition was valued at $70 million, Richardson said in a Jan. 5 interview. Icicle was required before the sale to address DNR’s concerns.
Richardson said the Styrofoam had been contained and defective anchors were in the process of being replaced.
“DNR staff knew about that when they came to inspect us,” Richardson said.
A DNR official was not immediately available for comment.
Franz asserted in a Jan. 3 Peninsula Daily News interview that Cooke inherited the requirement to address the lease-boundary violation when Cooke acquired the facilities.
Richardson said that questions will have to be worked out in court.
Cooke presented DNR with options to redo the lease boundaries, and DNR did not respond or present alternative options to remedy the issue, Richardson said.
“As far as we knew, we were in compliance with the lease that had been transferred from one owner to the other with DNR approval,” he said.
The aquatic lands lease was scheduled to expire in September 2025.
Prior to receiving the notice of termination, Cooke had ordered $1.6 million in new steel cages to replace the existing net pens at the Port Angeles farm, the lawsuit said.
The farm includes a six-cage unit of net pens and a 14-cage unit of net pens in the harbor.
Plans to move the operation to Clallam County waters two miles north of Morse Creek were shelved after the Cypress Island incident.
DNR inspected the Port Angeles facility Dec. 9 while Cooke’s mooring and maintenance work was ongoing. A Cooke farm manger told DNR that two missing anchor lines and an open link in a third chain was being replaced, the lawsuit said.
The state concluded that the fish farm anchors were outside the lease area, that Cooke had failed to encapsulate Styrofoam on a concrete float and that two anchors on the 22-anchor system were missing.
Cooke maintained that the lease did not require that the anchors be moved, that a small section of exposed Styrofoam was scheduled for repair and that the two anchor lines were being replaced.
Rob Ollikainen is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Gottlieb is a Senior Staff Writer with the Olympic Peninsula News Group. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at email@example.com.