Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, November 23, 2020


Kurt Beardslee, Wild Fish Conservancy, (206) 310-9301,
Sophia Ressler, Center for Biological Diversity, (206) 900-7953,
Hallie Templeton, Friends of the Earth, (434) 326-4647,
Amy van Saun, Center for Food Safety, (585) 747-0151,
Brian A. Knutsen, Kampmeier & Knutsen, PLLC, (503) 841-6515,

Appeal Challenges Approval of Puget Sound Fish Farm

SEATTLE— Conservation and environmental groups today appealed a ruling by the King County Superior Court to uphold a state permit allowing Cooke Aquaculture to raise domesticated steelhead in its Puget Sound net pens.

In February, Wild Fish Conservancy and co-counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit challenging the decision by Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to grant the permit. The lawsuit argued the department violated state law by issuing a permit without conducting an environmental impact statement, a comprehensive scientific review that fully analyzes the environmental impacts to threatened and endangered species, water quality, and the overall health of Puget Sound’s ecosystem.

“In filing this lawsuit, we were simply asking Washington Fish and Wildlife to do their due diligence and fully analyze potential environmental impacts before making a decision on whether or not to permit this new project,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “The current inadequate review sets an unacceptably low bar for what level of risk and uncertainty are acceptable when it comes to making decisions with the potential to endanger the health of Puget Sound.”

In the order, Judge Johanna Bender ruled the court owes deference to the agency’s interpretation of the law and science because the court does not have the scientific expertise necessary to overrule the agency’s findings. As a result, the court upheld the Department of Fish and Wildlife analysis and review of the science that determined Cooke’s project will not pose significant environmental impacts and therefore does not require an environmental impact statement.

“The question at the heart of this lawsuit is whether or not the agency’s environmental review of the science sufficiently considered the risks posed by Cooke’s new project,” said Beardslee. “The court’s decision to rely on the expertise of the very agency being challenged means the scientific merits of this case have not been considered. The health of our Sound is too important. We will appeal this case directly to the Supreme Court.”

“Fish factory farming has no place in Puget Sound,” said Sophia Ressler, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “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.”

During the public comment period reviewing the state’s environmental review process, the Department of Fish and Wildlife reported unprecedented participation. More than 3,500 comments were submitted by the public, including fishery and killer whale experts, conservation organizations, commercial and recreational fishing groups, and six Tribal Nations.

These comments overwhelmingly called for the agency to withdraw their initial decision and conduct a full environmental impact statement before permitting Cooke’s new project. Even the Department of Natural Resources, a jurisdictional agency to the review process, submitted comments expressing concerns that were never addressed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in its environmental review process.

The risks and environmental harm posed by marine finfish net pen aquaculture are well-documented. In May 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a new Endangered Species Act determination that Puget Sound net pens “are likely to adversely affect” endangered salmon, steelhead, and rockfish in Puget Sound.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently preparing a biological opinion to further analyze this initial finding. In trial, the Department of Fish and Wildlife argued there was no agency record of environmental harm in Puget Sound posed by commercial marine finfish aquaculture.

Wild Fish Conservancy and partners’ arguments were supported by the Swinomish Tribal Nation, which submitted an amicus brief in the case in August. In an attempt to silence the Tribe from participating in the lawsuit, Cooke and the Department of Fish and Wildlife called for the Judge to dismiss the amicus entirely.

In its legal filings, the Tribe expressed concerns over the impacts Cooke’s Hope Island net pen facility poses to the Tribe's treaty rights, Skagit River salmon runs, and other fishery resources.

The conservation and environmental groups bringing today’s appeal are represented by Kampmeier & Knutsen, and by attorneys at the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Net-pen farming in Puget Sound promotes private profit over public resource preservation,” said Amy van Saun, senior attorney at Center for Food Safety. “We will continue fighting this harmful practice to help to protect our endangered salmon and orca for future generations.”

“We are disappointed that the lower court has upheld WDFW’s inadequate environmental review of Cooke’s destructive net pens," said Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner and deputy legal director at Friends of the Earth. "We will appeal the flawed decision that allows Cooke’s floating factory farms to persist in Puget Sound, further destroying water quality and our endangered salmon and orcas.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Wild Fish Conservancy is a nonprofit conservation ecology organization dedicated to preserving, protecting, and restoring the northwest’s wild fish and the ecosystems they depend on, through science, education, and advocacy.

Center for Food Safety's mission is to empower people, support farmers, and protect the earth from the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture, including aquaculture. Through groundbreaking legal, scientific, and grassroots action, we protect and promote your right to safe food and a healthy resilient environment.

Friends of the Earth fights to create a more healthy and just world. Our current campaigns focus on promoting clean energy and solutions to climate change, ensuring the food we eat and products we use are safe and sustainable, and protecting marine ecosystems and the people who live and work near them.

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