State gives fish farm operator 60 days to fix flaws in Puget Sound net pen

Cooke Aquaculture’s Atlantic salmon net pens in Rich Passage. (Photo: KOMO News)

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The operator of a salmon farming operation in Puget Sound has been given 60 days to fix flaws in its Rich Passage net pen facility or face possible closure, state officials said Monday.

The order comes after an inspection by the state Department of Natural Resources found problems with Cooke Aquaculture’s Atlantic salmon net pens in Rich Passage.

Hilary Franz, state public lands commissioner, noted: "Following the inspection last week our structural engineer identified a number of issues where the facility was not in good condition."

Cooke released a statement:

"Cooke Aquaculture is committed to working with the state of Washington and Native American tribes to demonstrate that our facilities are operated at the highest standards of safety and structural integrity. In this case, the Department of Natural Resource’s own engineer has inspected the Clam Bay facility and concluded that it is safe and suitable for restocking. The issues raised by the department in this letter do not impact the structural integrity of the facility, and were already being addressed when the engineer was on site last month. It is important to remember that Cooke Aquaculture acquired the facility in 2016 and is in the process of upgrading it to meet the company’s high standards."

Cooke Aquaculture's other net pens off Cypress Island collapsed Aug. 19, releasing tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound, and now the company wants to transfer about 1 million juvenile Atlantic salmon from a hatchery near Rochester to the Rich Passage net pens..

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a permit to Cooke last week allowing the transfer since current laws and administrative rules do not give state regulators the authority to deny Cooke's permit to move healthy fish into an existing net pen.

But the DNR's inspection of the Rich Passage facility then turned up problems - including a hole in the netting and severe corrosion on several components of the facility’s above-water infrastructure, state DNR officials said.

“Given the failure of the Cypress Island facility, we have to be extra vigilant in making sure Cooke’s other existing aquaculture facilities are structurally sound,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. “We cannot tolerate any risk that more Atlantic salmon will be released in Washington’s waters.”

On Monday, DNR issued a "letter of default" to Cooke Aquaculture, which gives the company 60 days to make repairs to the Rich Passage facility. If the company cannot make those repairs in that time, its lease for the state-owned aquatic lands on which the facility sits can be terminated.

After the failure of Cooke’s Cypress Island net pen, Franz ordered a moratorium on new Atlantic salmon net pen facilities on state-owned aquatic lands managed by DNR. Gov. Jay Inslee also directed his agencies to issue no permits for new aquaculture net pens while the incident was being investigated.

The Cypress Island incident remains under investigation, and efforts to recover the escaped fish continue. About half of the 305,000 fish from the collapsed pen are thought to have escaped, state officials said.

DNR says it is currently inspecting all four of the company's Washington facilities to be extra vigilant in making sure the aquaculture facilities are structurally sound.

"My hope is that any current facilities that we have leases with, we get them in good working order so we don't have any challenges or risks," Franz said.

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