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.

Cooke Aquaculture has been granted approval from the state Department of Fish & Wildlife to replace Atlantic salmon at its floating fish farms in Puget Sound with native steelhead.

The state agency announced the decision Wednesday, closing the state Environmental Policy Act review process during which about 3,500 comments were received.

“We heard from a huge number of stakeholders on this issue, and we appreciate everyone who took time to make their voice heard as part of this process,” Fish & Wildlife Deputy Director Amy Windrope said in a news release. “This permit was approved based on scientific review and is contingent on Cooke complying with strict provisions designed to minimize any risk to native fish species.”

Cooke’s permit application states it will use all female fish and will have them sterilized before moving them into net pens at its fish farms. That means the fish should be unable to reproduce if they make their way into the Salish Sea the way a large number of Atlantic salmon did following the August 2017 collapse of a farm off Cypress Island in Skagit County.

The five-year permit applies to existing net pens where Cooke holds aquatic land leases with the state Department of Natural Resources. One of the four sites is in Skagit County, near Hope Island.

The permit could also be extended to allow Cooke to raise steelhead at two net pens near Cypress Island, where Natural Resources revoked Cooke’s lease following the collapse of a third net pen should the state agency restore or issue a new lease for that facility.

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

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