Meet your new neighbors.
Meet your new neighbors. bksrus / Getty Images

Three years ago, a huge salmon pen owned by Cooke Aquaculture north of Seattle collapsed, releasing a quarter-million non-native fish into local waterways. Last year, a Cook Aquaculture pen near Bainbridge Island collapsed. The same year, a hidden camera investigation showed terrible suffering—including workers appearing to stomp fish to death—at a Cooke facility in Maine.

Despite those troubles, Washington gave the company a permit to establish a pen for trout in Puget Sound. As you might imagine, conservation groups are not pleased, and this week a coalition of environmental groups filed an appeal to stop the fish farm from moving forward.

According to plaintiffs, the EPA found that the pens “are likely to adversely affect” wild fish in the area. Now it’s up to the state Supreme Court to decide whether to stop Cooke’s plans from proceeding.

It’s been a long and complicated road (or river?) to bring us to this point. A few years back, the state issued new rules for fish farms, banning non-native species. That came a little too late for all the Atlantic salmon that escaped from a Cooke facility in 2017—but hey, better late than never?

With Atlantic fish phasing out, Cooke planned to transition to farmed steelhead trout, and earlier this year the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) issued them a permit to do so. But they did so without conducting an environmental impact statement, which is great news for Cooke—full speed ahead!—but groups including the Wild Fish Conservancy, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Earth sounded the alarm. They pointed out that the Washington Department of National Resources expressed concerns that the WDFW simply ignored, and that the EPA issued a report in May of this year projecting that the fish farms will have a negative impact on wild species. What’s more, the Swinomish Tribal Nation pointed out that the pens would encroach on their treaty rights.

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But that wasn’t good enough for Superior Court Judge Johanna Bender, who earlier this month ruled that Cooke’s permit was valid—in part because the WDFW consulted an environmental study from 30 years ago and consulted various scientific publications and experts. Good enough, the court decided!

So that’s what’s brought us to where we are now, with conservation groups asking the Supreme Court to step in and stop Cooke from introducing hundreds of thousands of steelhead into Puget Sound fish farms.

“Net-pen farming in Puget Sound promotes private profit over public resource preservation,” said Amy van Saun, senior attorney at Center for Food Safety. “We will continue fighting this harmful practice to help to protect our endangered salmon and orca for future generations.”