The Wild Steelhead Coalition is deeply concerned about Cooke Aquaculture’s proposed plans to raise steelhead in its existing Atlantic salmon net pens in Puget Sound. We are committed to working with our partners in the fishing, conservation, and tribal communities to pressure state agencies and elected officials to deny Cooke’s application to transition its net pen operations to farming steelhead in Washington’s marine waters.
“Considering Cooke Aquaculture’s horrible environmental record in Washington and their history of dishonesty with the public and regulatory agencies, it’s appalling the company is seeking to continue operating fish farms in our public waterways simply by changing species,” said Rich Simms, Wild Steelhead Coalition co-founder and member of WDFW’s Puget Sound Steelhead Advisory Group. “The idea that the state might allow this bait and switch by permitting them to transition their destructive Atlantic salmon net pens into even more dangerous steelhead net pens is bewildering.”
For decades, Cooke Aquaculture’s eight Atlantic salmon net pens had been operating in Washington with a checkered environmental record that included thousands of escaped Atlantic salmon, a major viral outbreak, and decades of pollution. However, on August 19th 2017, their environmental record went from bad to worse when one of their Cypress Island Atlantic salmon net pens breached and released more than 250,000 Atlantic salmon into the waters near the San Juan Islands.
Following the breach, and the misdirection and irresponsibility from Cooke that followed (including attempting to blame the spill on the Solar Eclipse), for months commercial and recreational fishermen reported catching escaped Atlantic salmon throughout Puget Sound, including in critical salmon and steelhead rivers such as the Skagit and Elhwa. This incident was one of Washington’s biggest environmental disasters in recent history and led the State Legislature to pass a law in 2018 (HB 2957) to end state leases and permits for operations that grow non-native finfish in state waters by 2022.
“This is a ridiculous proposal, and should anyone who’s tasked with oversight on it stop laughing long enough to actually consider what’s being proposed, the idea would be quashed immediately,” said Bainbridge Island resident Dylan Tomine, producer of Artifishal and author of Closer to the Ground. “The domesticated rainbow trout used for net-pen “steelhead” are genetically so far from the wild steelhead of Puget Sound that they are essentially an exotic species that would become invasive when, given the structural condition of existing Puget Sound net pens, the inevitable escape occurs. Additionally, all the same problems of pollution–pesticides, pharmaceuticals, fecal matter–not to mention proliferation of viruses and parasites that open-water net pens are known for, would still exist with steelhead as they do with Atlantic salmon. Cooke Aquaculture’s attempt to weasel their way around the current laws is a cynical act by an irresponsible company that clearly cares little for the environment or the will of the People of Washington state.”
“Escaped non-native Atlantic salmon pose a serious threat to our native salmonid populations,” explained Rich Simms. “However, the threat of escaped farmed steelhead to our imperiled wild steelhead stocks are far graver and include genetic dilution through interbreeding as well as the spread of lethal viruses. Given the tenuous state of wild steelhead populations, the last thing our endangered State Fish needs is another threat to push them further down the path towards extinction.”
“If we are truly committed to recovering Puget Sound’s imperiled wild steelhead populations, which have been diminished by roughly 98 percent over the last 120 years, we need to double down on recovery efforts and restoring healthy watersheds, not allowing aquaculture companies with tarnished records to further pollute our ecosystem and endanger wild stocks with industrial fish farms. The people of Washington and its legislature have spoken and they want Cooke Aquaculture and their net pens out of our waters. It’s time for our state agencies to listen. We strongly encourage the state Department of Natural Resources, Department of Ecology and Department of Fish and Wildlife to deny Cooke’s permit application.”
Founded in 2000 by passionate steelhead anglers and conservationists, the Wild Steelhead Coalition is a local grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the return of wild steelhead to the waters of the West Coast. The group’s board members and staff participate in a variety of steelhead advocacy programs, champion habitat restoration projects such as work with tribes and businesses on the Skagit River’s Barnaby Slough, and are represented in a variety of state and federal roundtables.
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