State cancels lease at site of salmon net-pen collapse

SEATTLE — Washington state officials on Sunday canceled a lease with Cooke Aquaculture Pacific at the site where net pens holding farmed Atlantic salmon collapsed last summer, releasing tens of thousands non-native fish into Puget Sound.

The decision comes days after a multi-agency state investigation found the Canada-based company negligent for failing to adequately clean its nets, saying that directly contributed to the net-pen failure in August at the facility.

The report released Tuesday said the nets failed because they were excessively laden with mussels and other marine organisms. That increased the drag on the nets from tidal currents and overwhelmed the mooring system.

State officials last week also accused the company of misleading them by under-reporting how many fish escaped into Puget Sound on Aug. 19 and over-reporting how many fish were captured. It fined the company $332,000 for alleged clean water law violations for releasing invasive species into Washington state waters.

"Cooke has flagrantly violated the terms of its lease at Cypress Island," Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said in a statement. "The company's reckless disregard endangered the health of our waters and our people, and it will not be tolerated."

In a follow-up interview Sunday, Franz said "this should never have happened." She said she's particularly concerned about the impact that the invasive Atlantic salmon could have on native salmon runs.

Between 243,000 and 263,000 fish escaped from the Cypress Island farm, many more than Cooke's initial reports of 160,000, the state report said.

Franz's agency is currently reviewing Cooke's other farmed salmon operations at Rich Passage and Hope Island in central Puget Sound to ensure they're in good, safe working order.

"Given that Cooke Aquaculture Pacific received the notice of termination on Saturday, we will reserve comment until we've had the proper time to review the letter and assess its impact on our operations and our employees' livelihoods," Cooke spokesman Joel Richardson said in an emailed statement.

Last week, the company criticized the state's investigation as incomplete and inaccurate. The company disputed the report's findings, including its accounting of fish. It said Cooke employees were under state supervision when the recovered fish were counted and that the state relied on wrong estimates about average fish weight.

This is the second Cooke lease that Franz has canceled in two months. Franz overseas the state Department of Natural Resources, which manages and leases state-owned waters. All of Cooke's marine-farmed salmon operations hold state leases.

In December, Franz ended the state's lease with Cooke at its marine aquaculture in Port Angeles, saying the company violated the terms of its lease by not maintaining the facility in a safe condition. Cooke has challenged that decision in Clallam County Superior Court.

Cooke is the largest U.S. producer of farmed Atlantic salmon. Before the two lease cancellations, the company operated eight commercial salmon net pens at four locations. The company bought the facilities from Icicle Acquisition Subsidiary in 2016.

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