After Atlantic salmon spill, fish farms' future under attack on both sides of border

Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times on

Published in Outdoors

"DNR will not be authorizing any new farms, or expansions to existing, Atlantic salmon net-pen structures on state-owned aquatic lands until it can be shown that this activity is in the best interest of the state," Franz said. "It's clear to me that thousands of Atlantic salmon swimming in the Puget Sound is not in the best interest of the state."

Orientation key The company last year acquired the three farms at Cypress Island and five others in Puget Sound from Icicle Seafoods. Fish farming had been underway by various previous owners at the location for three decades, and the equipment that failed was installed 17 years ago, Brown said.

A key issue for Cooke was the orientation of farm No. 2, broadside to the current, which it had intended to change. "We wanted to rotate it so it was better situated," Brown said. The company intended to turn the farm and put in all new equipment at a cost of $1.4 million right after the harvest that should have been going on just about now, and its permits were pending, Brown said.

Instead, the company scrambled at the end of July to make emergency repairs to the farm, working to stabilize it after it had begun to drift. "We ran into a situation with very heavy currents and the farm did drift and move," Brown said. "We were able to replace some of the moorings and the anchor lines and get it back to a stable condition to where we thought it would be OK."

But on Aug. 19, the farm again started to drift. "The magnitude wasn't really clear at first, where this was going; your hope is something is going wrong, but you are going to get it under control quickly," Brown said. Instead the farm collapsed the next day.

Cooke has hired contractors to salvage the wreck, and is under orders from the DNR to clean up its mess by Sept. 24.

On a recent morning, seagulls circled and crows picked at the twisted, floating debris. A crane on a barge lifted a walkway from the farm high in the air to pile it on wreckage heaped on deck. Cables, twisted line and fouled nets lurched in the current. Nearby, more than half a million fish jumped in the company's two remaining active farms at the site.

Brown said the company knows it needs to rebuild trust, "and we hope we have the opportunity to do that.

"We are deeply sorry about the incident at our Cypress Island farm and we are focused on properly and safely removing the fish and equipment from the farm and working with tribes, experts and agencies to meet our obligations."

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific is part of Cook Aquaculture, a global fish-farming company that is the largest producer of Atlantic salmon in North America. Cooke's recent acquisition in Washington is intended to help the company reach new markets and continue its expansion, Brown said.

Cooke Aquaculture is already big, with operations in Chile, Spain, Scotland, Atlantic Canada and Maine. The company is vertically integrated, from the eggs it hatches for its fish to the young fry it grows up on land to stock its net pens, and even the equipment it manufactures, and trucks to bring the fish to market -- mostly grocery retailers and mid- to large-size food service distributors.

Founded in 1985 by one family with 5,000 fish in New Brunswick, the company today has about $1.8 billion in annual sales -- including more than $31 million in Washington, where Cooke has 80 employees.

When it arrived in Puget Sound last year, Cooke had intended to continue its practice of acquiring farms and upgrading them for top production -- just as was planned at Site 2.

"We buy them, we review them for how they can be improved. We took over here, and we were investing here, that was all in process, and very much part of the plan," Brown said.

"Obviously, that didn't work."

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