UPDATE: Ecology recently learned that a required second notice of this comment period did not publish in local newspapers as planned. Ecology is extending the comment period until Monday, June 8 to ensure an open and transparent process.
Cooke Aquaculture has submitted applications to the Washington Department of Ecology requesting to modify its existing water quality permits for four Puget Sound net pens. The company wants to raise all-female, sterile rainbow trout, also known as steelhead, which are native to Washington instead of non-native Atlantic salmon.
In order to change the type of species, the company must go through a multi-agency, multi-step permitting process.
In January, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife approved Cooke’s request to farm native steelhead. The department regulates ecological impacts of marine aquaculture to prevent disease and harmful effects to wild stocks.
Ecology regulates marine net pen aquaculture to protect water quality through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).
Ecology is accepting feedback on the applications and supporting documents for the modification request. All documents can be viewed at ecology.wa.gov/NetPenPermit, and comments can be submitted online through May 22, 2020.
This is the first step in Ecology’s process. Following this application comment period, Ecology will review the public feedback and determine if and how to modify the permits to continue protecting water quality. If Ecology decides to modify the existing permits, drafts will be available for public review and feedback; the soonest this may happen is summer 2020.
In 2018, the Legislature passed a law that phases out non-native marine net pen fish farming by 2022. Because steelhead are native, they are not part of the 2018 law. A decision by Ecology to modify the current permits will not extend the permit length, which expire in 2024. The permits were originally issued to allow for two years of closure activities and monitoring after Cooke’s aquatic lands leases from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) expire in 2022. For Cooke Aquaculture to continue with these net pens past 2022, DNR will have to approve new aquatic land leases.
Ecology last updated the net pen permits in July 2019 to include increased protections for water quality based on lessons learned from the 2017 net pen collapse at a Cooke Cypress Island site. To learn more about the water quality permits updated in 2019, read the July 11, 2019, news release.