Steelhead at Hope Island farm

This Google Earth image from state Department of Ecology documents shows the grid-like fish farm off the shore of Hope Island in southwest Skagit County. The state Department of Fish & Wildlife will allow Cooke Aquaculture to raise steelhead at the site.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife will allow Cooke Aquaculture to move up to 365,000 young steelhead from a hatchery to a marine net pen near Hope Island.

That net pen, also referred to as a fish farm, is in water between the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Reservation on Fidalgo Island and Deception Pass State Park on Whidbey Island.

“For Swinomish, this decision will harm our cultural resources and practices, interfere with our treaty fishing rights and cause additional harm to our imperiled Skagit River salmon stocks,” Swinomish Chairman Steve Edwards said in a statement regarding the permit to allow the fish to be moved into the net pen.

The fish will be moved from a hatchery in Rochester between now and the end of September.

The state’s decision to allow the fish to be put in the net pen became official Thursday when Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind signed the permit application.

The net pen’s location is in habitat used by Endangered Species Act-listed Skagit River chinook salmon and steelhead trout, as well as within the Swinomish tribe’s usual fishing area.

“The Hope Island net pen interferes with our way of life, and it needs to be removed, not revived,” Edwards said.

Atlantic salmon were previously raised at the Hope Island net pen and others in the region. Following the collapse of one of those net pens — and the escape of about 300,000 of the nonnative fish — in 2017, the state Legislature instituted a phase-out of nonnative fish farming by 2022.

In response, Cooke Aquaculture in 2019 proposed switching its facilities to a native species and raising all-female, lab-sterilized fish. That proposal is tied up in ongoing litigation and set for a hearing in the state’s Supreme Court on Sept. 28.

The environmental groups behind the litigation — Wild Fish Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth — argue the proposal should require an environmental impact statement, or EIS, under the State Environmental Policy Act.

The groups say fish farms are not only dangerous because of the risk of collapse like was seen in 2017, but also because under normal operations they can impact water quality and introduce disease — factors that can affect native wildlife such as Skagit River salmon and endangered Southern Resident orcas.

“The stocking of this facility has the potential to contaminate our waters and threaten the species that are so dear to our Puget Sound ecosystem,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Sophia Ressler said in a news release.

Cooke Aquaculture applied for the permit in June. It requires that Cooke Aquaculture provide Fish and Wildlife and two other state agencies with advance notice of the transport of fish, as well as provide a report following transport of its success or challenges.

The permit also requires Cooke Aquaculture to notify the three state agencies before harvesting full-grown fish from the net pen, and to provide a report about harvest activities — including whether any of the fish escape during the process.

Among other details of the permit, Fish and Wildlife is requiring annual fish health evaluation reports.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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