Fish farm

The collapsed pen seen from Deepwater Bay in August.

Jacqueline Allison / Anacortes American

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife approved a permit today that will allow Cooke Aquaculture to bring one million juvenile Atlantic salmon into one of its fish farms near Bainbridge Island.

The new permit allows Cooke to transfer salmon smolts from its hatchery in Rochester, located in Thurston County south of Olympia, to its pen in Clam Bay across from Bainbridge Island. 

Gov. Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz opposed the permit and requested Cooke withdraw its application in light of the company’s August salmon farm collapse that caused an escape of about 160,000 farmed fish.

Inslee and Franz had directed state agencies to halt new or pending permits for new fish pens while the state investigated the cause of the pen failure. The investigations are not expected to be complete until December, the Department of Natural Resources has said.

“My office has asked Cooke to do the right thing – for our tribes, for our citizens, for our environment and for the industry’s long-term prospects –and withdraw their request,” Inslee said in the release.

The state found, however, that Fish and Wildlife didn’t have the authority to deny a permit to transfer fish into an existing pen, according to the joint release from Inslee and Franz.

A state-hired structural engineer inspected the Bainbridge Island pen last week and found it be structurally secure, according to the release. Ecology performed a water quality inspection and reported no violations, though requested Cooke put off its fish transfer plans until after the investigation. 

A letter from Cooke’s attorney to Inslee’s office stated the company had completed inspections and necessary repairs of the empty nets and could not wait another week to move the biologically ready smolts into saltwater.

The state is a hiring a third party to do its own inspection of the company’s seven intact pens, as well as examine the data and images from the now-disposed-of broken pen, said Natural Resources spokeswoman Cori Simmons.

Cooke submitted an application in February to Natural Resources to replace the aging pen near Cypress Island, which the company stated was “showing signs of excess wear” and “due for complete replacement.”

The application was not processed in time to replace equipment before the pen failure, Natural Resources has said.

The August incident is the second-largest salmon spill in the state’s history. Lummi Nation fishermen were first to report that the nonnative fish were on the loose in Puget Sound waters, with the tribe declaring a state of emergency and creating an emergency tribal fishery to remove as many Atlantic salmon as possible.

Tribes and others view Atlantic salmon farming as a threat to the native salmon populations they have spent millions of dollars trying to restore.

A flotilla protest September near the Bainbridge Island farm called for the end of commercial salmon farming in Washington. Oregon, California and Alaska have all banned such farms or have none.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Samish Indian Nation did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.