Adult steelhead trout. Cooke's fish will be female and sterile. Photo: Oregon State University.

Cooke wins green light to grow trout in Washington

Canadian salmon farmer Cooke has been given permission to grow all-female sterile (triploid) rainbow trout at four farms in Puget Sound in Washington state in the western United States.

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In March 2018 the state’s legislators voted to phase out net-pen farming of non-native fish – which in effect meant Atlantic salmon farmed by Cooke – following an escape of 263,000 fish from a Cooke farm in Cypress Island in August 2017.

This week’s decision by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDWF) allows Cooke to continue using some of the nine farms at four locations that it bought from Icicle Foods for $70 million in 2016.

Native to Washington

Rainbow trout, also known as steelhead in the US, are native to Washington’s waters.

In a press release, WDWF said the five-year permit applies to existing net pens in Puget Sound where Cooke holds valid aquatic land leases with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. This includes four farms currently operating near Rich Passage and Skagit Bay but may later extend to three other net pen farms owned by Cooke.

Hilary Franz: Terminated two of Cooke's leases.

Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, who has been outspoken in her criticism of Cooke, has terminated two of the company’s leases, at Cypress Island and Port Angeles, because of alleged lease violations.

Cooke is hoping to have the Port Angeles lease reinstated and in October last year it entered into a joint venture with a Native American tribe to grow sablefish (black cod) and triploid female rainbow trout in Port Angeles Bay.

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe said the venture will require the reinstatement of Cooke’s former fish farm lease at Port Angeles, in exchange for significant investment by the venture in new infrastructure and local jobs.


WDFW said it approved the permit for Rich Passage and Skagit Bay following an extensive State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) public comment period, which saw more than 3,500 comments submitted. 

Amy Windrope: Approval is based on science. Photo: WDWF.

“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,” said WDFW deputy director Amy Windrope.

“This permit was approved based on scientific review and is contingent on Cooke complying with strict provisions designed to minimise any risk to native fish species.”

The provisions include:

  • A comprehensive escape prevention, response, and report plan;
  • Biennial inspections of net-pen facilities by a WDFW-approved marine engineering firm, to check for structural integrity and permit compliance;
  • Immediate reports to WDFW of any escaped fish, as well as a unique marking identifying all commercial aquaculture fish;
  • Sampling and testing of smolts before being transferred to marine net pens, to ensure that they are free of disease;
  • Annual fish health evaluation reports; and
  • Tissue sampling for genetic analysis of broodstock by WDFW.

In addition, Cooke will have to obtain a modification to its National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits from the Washington Department of Ecology, and a transport permit from WDFW prior to any steelhead trout being moved into net pens.

Family-owned Cooke, based in New Brunswick, farms salmon in Atlantic Canada, Maine in the US, Shetland and Orkney in Scotland, and Chile. It also farms sea bream and sea bass in the Mediterranean.