Groups sue Washington wildlife agency over steelhead farms

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. (AP) — Four nonprofits filed a joint lawsuit Tuesday against the state Department of Fish & Wildlife for issuing a permit for steelhead farms in the marine waters of Skagit and Kitsap counties.

The Skagit Valley Herald reports Wild Fish Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth argue that allowing Cooke Aquaculture to raise steelhead in floating net pens would jeopardize the region's wild steelhead, salmon and endangered Southern Resident orca whales.

“We need to be doing everything we can to save our wild salmon and orcas,” Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release. “Fish feedlots simply don’t belong in wild salmon waters. These net pens undermine the crucial work that has gone into restoring native fish runs.”

Puget Sound steelhead, including those from the Skagit River, have been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2007.

Cooke Aquaculture and the wildlife agency did not respond to requests for comment.

The groups behind the lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court say exposure to farm-grown steelhead could put the wild species at increased risk of disease and genetic impacts from interbreeding.

They are particularly concerned because of Cooke Aquaculture's history of growing Atlantic salmon in area waters.

In August 2017, one of the company's farms near Cypress Island in Skagit County collapsed under the weight of debris the company neglected to clean off, and the majority of the 300,000 fish in that net pen escaped.