Fish farming

Cooke Aquaculture’s Port Angeles fish operation inside the Ediz hook in December 2017.

Environmental groups are taking their fight against Cooke Aquaculture’s proposal to transition from farming Atlantic salmon to steelhead to the state Supreme Court.

The groups appealed Monday a Nov. 6 decision by King County Superior Court Judge Johanna Bender that upheld a permit issued by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife to allow such farms in area waters.

The permit includes Cooke’s farm near Hope Island in southwest Skagit County.

The environmental groups — Wild Fish Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth — originally appealed the Fish & Wildlife permit in February. Bender heard arguments in September.

While the original appeal raised several hot-button issues regarding fish farming and its effects on Puget Sound, Bender said the ultimate question was whether Fish & Wildlife, also called WDFW, met its legal obligations in reviewing Cooke’s permit application.

“The question before this Court is quire [sic] narrow: Did WDFW follow applicable law in issuing the Permit? The answer to that question is yes,” Bender’s ruling states.

The questions Bender considered included whether Fish & Wildlife used an invalid baseline for reviewing Cooke’s permit application, whether the state agency adequately considered available science in its review, and whether it was an error not to require a more in-depth environmental review.

The question of baseline — whether the proposal should be compared to the impacts of existing non-native salmon farms, or to the absence of fish farms altogether — was a major focus of the September hearing.

Bender determined no clear errors were made.

“This Court is mindful that the Puget Sound ecosystem is particularly fragile, and that there are endangered species whose survival are in peril. However, on this record, the Court does not hold a ‘definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed,’” the court document states.

Fish & Wildlife approved the permit in January, issuing a mitigated determination of nonsignificance under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).

The environmental groups are further appealing Bender’s decision because they believe the proposal should require an environmental impact statement, or EIS, under SEPA.

“Doing the work to fully understand how this project could harm our waters and endangered wildlife is absolutely vital to protecting our state waters, and the failure to require this will be destructive,” Center for Biological Diversity lawyer Sophia Ressler said in a news release.

Cooke proposed making the switch from Atlantic salmon to Pacific steelhead in 2019 in order to remain in business in Washington waters following the collapse of one of its net pens — near Cypress Island in Skagit County — in August 2017. During that collapse, about 300,000 fish at the farm escaped.

In response, the state Legislature passed a law phasing out Atlantic salmon net pen aquaculture by 2022.

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

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