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Court upholds termination of Cooke Aquaculture net-pen lease in Port Angeles

Termination of the lease for a fish-farming operation in the harbor at Port Angeles has been upheld in Thurston County Superior Court.

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific said it would appeal the ruling.

Kurt Grinnell, a member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Council and CEO of Jamestown Seafood, said he’s hopeful something can be worked out to keep afloat a partnership with Cooke to farm black cod and steelhead at the site. The tribe has no interest in using any of Cooke’s farms in other locations, Grinnell said, so the Port Angeles lease is a make or break for the joint venture.

“We want to get our fish in the water,” he said. “Given the condition of our natural stocks that we no longer fish for, going forward this is something we feel our tribe is going to have to look for in order to have some consistent fish not only to eat, but to sell.”

Even if Cooke prevails on appeal, the company still needs approval from the state Department of Natural Resources to allow it to farm steelhead or black cod at the pen. The current lease for the pen is for farming Atlantic salmon and “for no other purpose,” the lease states.

Hilary Franz, state commissioner of public lands for the state DNR, terminated the lease held by Cooke Aquaculture at the net pen site in December 2017. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy last week rejected Cooke’s challenge.

Franz called Cooke’s lawsuit “baseless” in a statement: “Thank you to Judge Murphy for upholding the right of the Department of Natural Resources to terminate the lease of a company that failed to operate safely. My duty is to ensure that no company endangers the health of Washington’s waters, which support our culture, economy and struggling native salmon.”

Franz said Cooke had failed in its duty to uphold the terms of the lease by operating outside of its boundaries and not operating the facility in a safe condition.

Cooke spokesman Joel Richardson said the company will continue its efforts to begin farming steelhead.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife granted approval for Cooke’s steelhead plans last month at facilities where the company has valid leases. The company still faces more permitting hurdles.

“We’ve worked tirelessly to modernize the existing enclosed net pen farming facilities which we acquired from a previous owner in 2016,” Richardson said. “We have also been working together with the state regulatory agencies as well as progressive partners in the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe to rear Northwest native rainbow trout [steelhead] in Port Angeles Harbor.“

The inspection by DNR of the Port Angeles facility was one of many made at each of Cooke’s pens after a collapse of the company’s Atlantic salmon net-pen farm at Cypress Island in August 2017. The lease for the Cypress Island farm also has been terminated by DNR and Cooke’s appeal of that termination is pending in Superior Court.

In an investigation by three state agencies following the net pen collapse Cooke was found to be negligent in its operations of the Cypress Island farm and to have misled its regulators about both the cause of the event and the scope of it. Cooke disputed the findings of the state’s investigation.

After the net-pen break the state Legislature in 2018 passed a law that phased out net pen farming of exotic species such as Atlantic salmon in Washington waters by 2025.

The Northwest Aquaculture Alliance, a pro-aquaculture group that includes Cooke and the Jamestown tribe, said in a news release Monday the group was “disappointed” with the ruling. John Dentler, president of the alliance, said Franz had chosen the “nuclear option” of terminating the lease rather than working out terms for further operations at the Port Angeles site.