Washington state's Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz on Friday announced an executive order to ban netpen finfish farming in Washington state-owned waters.

"It is our true intent that Washington's publicly-owned waters will be free from netpen farming forever," Franz said, citing Cooke's Cypress Island escape as one of the reasons for the executive order.

"Despite years of litigation and a company that has fought us every single step of the way, we are truly returning our waters to wild fish and natural habitat," Franz said, not saying Cooke by name, but referring to the company.

Franz announced the executive order as part of a conference Friday with Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman and Wild Fish Conservancy Executive Director Emma Helverson at the event, which took place on Bainbridge Island.

"The order is short-sighted, and the Commissioner’s position neglects extensive scientific analysis and judicial rulings, which found that there are no significant adverse environmental impacts arising from marine fish farming," Cooke Spokesman Joel Richardson said following the news conference.

"Since the unfortunate collapse of a steel cage system on one fish farm at Cypress Island in 2017, Cooke has worked collaboratively and transparently with regulatory agencies to identify areas of improvement and implement regulatory and monitoring processes to ensure that our operations meet and exceed the highest standards."

Suquamish Tribe's Forsman said Friday the netpens violate the tribe's treaty rights. He had previously said in an opinion published for the local news site Kitsap Sun last November Cooke's operation of Rich Passage negatively impacts "Tribal Treaty fishery activities," and that the tribe does not support Cooke’s leases at Rich Passage and Hope Island.

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The Washington State Department of Natural Resources on Monday told Cooke Aquaculture it would not renew licenses for the company's remaining steelhead farms, which included Rich Passage, essentially ending the Canadian seafood giant's netpen farming operations in the state.

Franz said Friday denying the leases did not go far enough.

'Netpen farming has negative impacts on the environment, including damaging zones of high biological activity," she said.

In two letters sent to Cooke on Monday, DNR Aquatic Resources Division Manager Thomas Gorman said the Canadian company's requests to renew the licenses for its Rich Passage and Hope Island farming sites were rejected.

From an animal welfare perspective, with this decision Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz is forcing Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to kill 332,000 juvenile steelhead," said Cooke Spokesperson Joel Richardson. "This is a tragic outcome for fish that should have been healthy, sustainable, food for our communities."

A little more than two weeks before she abruptly cancelled licenses for Cooke Aquaculture' s two remaining steelhead farms in Washington state, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz received a letter from a high-ranking delegation of state lawmakers urging her to renew the netpen farming licenses.

The bipartisan delegation also asked Franz to approve a pending lease application for Salish Fish, a joint venture between the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and Cooke, which is looking to build a new steelhead farm in Port Angeles, Washington, that would replace a former Cooke farm the company removed several years ago.

Joe Smillie, spokesperson for the Washington Department of Natural Resources confirmed to IntraFish that Commissioner Franz did receive the letter and she did "take it into consideration" in making her decision to cancel the farming licenses.

"But obviously it was appreciated but she disagreed, " he said.

Smillie said Franz has not responded in writing to the letter from legislators but may do so next week.

The State of Washington has been increasingly limiting Cooke's ability to operate netpens following the August 2017 collapse of a netpen at the company's Cypress Island fish farm.

The collapse led to the escape of hundreds of thousands of farmed non-native Atlantic salmon. Cooke was fined $332,000 (€321,000) for the incident.

In December of that year, DNR terminated the company's Port Angeles farming lease, and in 2018, Washington State banned farming non-native salmon species.

The executive order Franz announced Friday appears to ban finfish farming for both native and non-native species.

In 2020, Washington State officials approved Cooke's proposal to raise steelhead trout, a species native to the area, in some of the company's pens.

Commissioner Franz’s latest order directs DNR staff to develop necessary changes to agency rules, policies, and procedures to prohibit commercial finfish aquaculture on state-owned aquatic lands.

This order only applies to commercial net pen fin fish aquaculture, and does not apply to hatcheries that restorative or boost native stocks, according to Franz.

The department's denial of Cooke Aquaculture’s request to re-lease the sites to continue finfish net pen aquaculture gives the company until December 14 to finish operations and begin removing its facilities and repairing any environmental damage. The Hope Island lease expired in March and has been in month-to-month holdover status since. The Rich Passage lease expired in November.