Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Cooke Aquaculture, the Canadian fish farming operation responsible for the escape of thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound, is threatening to seek millions of dollars in damages from the state of Washington, as KUOW reports.

In August, a massive failure of Cooke's Atlantic salmon net pens near Cypress Island in the San Juans resulted in the release of over 250,000 non-native fish into the Salish Sea, according to state officials (Cooke says it was 160,000 fish). The escaped Atlantic salmon compete with native species like Chinook for food and breeding grounds, plus they spread disease, and their escape alarmed conservationists, commercial fishers, and Native American tribes like the Lummi.

“This disaster could have devastating effects and could potentially decimate this year’s run of Chinook salmon,” the Lummi Tribe's Natural Resources Director Merle Jefferson told Indian Country Today after the release. “This is unacceptable for all residents of the Puget Sound. We are doing what we can to help limit the damage, but as far as we know, containment is indefinite. These invasive fish are going to find our rivers.”

After the net failure, the Lummi tribal members rushed to cast their nets around the site of the spill, gathering as many escaped Atlantics as they could. Cooke then reportedly offered to pay the Lummi a premium fee of $42 per fish, an offer the Lummi interpreted as an attempt to buy their silence. So they rejected it.

While Cooke initially blamed the net pen failures on unusually high tides connected to the eclipse, state inspectors determined that the failures were caused by negligence and poor maintenance, and the state Department of Ecology fined the company $332,000 for violating water quality rules. The state's Department of Natural Resources also cancelled two permits for Cooke Aquaculture operations, and state lawmakers have passed bills that would permanently ban commercial net pens from farming Atlantic salmon in Washington waters, which Gov. Inslee is expected to sign into law.

Cooke, however, is fighting back. The company, which is family-owned and based in New Brunswick, Canada, brings in nearly $2 billion in revenue each year, and they say they will seek mandatory arbitration under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if the state succeeds in phasing out Atlantic salmon farming.

Cooke vice president Joel Richardson told KUOW that the company isn't the first to have net failures and accidental Atlantic salmon releases into Washington waters, and that when previous American-owned fish farms had salmon escape, the state didn't do anything about it.

Under NAFTA, all North American countries must treat foreign investors as well as they do domestic. The company said they will attempt to recover $76 million from the state, including in lost profits, costs, and investments in Washington fish farms.