Cooke decided to switch to steelhead - which are native to the area - after legislators in Washington State banned the net pen farming of non-native Atlantic salmon following the escape of more than 100,000 fish from Cooke’s Cypress Island farm in Puget Sound in 2017.
Yesterday, in a 9-0 opinion, the Washington Supreme Court rejected a challenge by the Wild Fish Conservancy and other groups to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) 2019 approval of the company’s permit application, which was upheld by a lower court.
The Northwest Aquaculture Alliance (NWAA), which advocates for the sustainable production of aquatic foods in the Pacific region, described the unanimous opinion by the state’s highest court “a clear victory for science,” noting that WDFW had spent nearly one year reviewing scientific reports and soliciting public input regarding the change of species application by Cooke. In addition, WDFW, in approving the species-change permit, conditioned the permit approval on a series of risk-mitigation efforts, including the requirement that Cooke use all-female, sterile steelhead to reduce the risk to wild salmonids in the event of escapes; the requirement of extensive monitoring and reporting of conditions at the net pens; and the use of the latest mooring and cage systems that have proved to be effective in other regions of the world where marine aquaculture takes place.
According to NWAA, the court also “rejected many of the unwarranted claims made by WFC and its co-Appellants, including unsubstantiated claims about disease, sea lice and other issues”.
NWAA President Jim Parsons, CEO of Jamestown Seafood, who previously served as general manager of Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, said the unanimous opinion should – and will – weigh in favour of other marine aquaculture producers facing similar unfounded attacks by special interest groups.
“As an industry, we are heartened to see a decision that essentially normalises fish farming in Washington. It has taken many years and countless scientific reports to get to this place, and we are heartened as an industry that we can finally move forward with some of our blue economy initiatives,” he said.
“We could not be more pleased, not just on behalf of Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, but also for the potential implications for marine aquaculture producers here and in other regions. We view this court opinion as a victory for the future of aquatic food production – and a giant leap forward for food security,” he added.