Canadian seafood giant Cooke Inc. has been given final approval to farm steelhead trout in Washington State, allowing the group to continue operating after an Atlantic salmon escape in 2017 put the company's future in the region in doubt.

The Washington Department of Ecology on Wednesday said it would allow sterile, all-female steelhead to be raised in the pens.

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 pens currently operating.

Cooke spokesperson Joel Richardson told IntraFish the company still needs to transfer farming permits from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to allow for the stocking of juvenile trout.

That process is, however, a procedural requirement and not subject to public hearings, Richardson noted, and the company hopes to stock the fish in late spring or early summer.

Cooke has Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Marine Aquaculture Permit requirements to meet before they are allowed to place steelhead in their net pens, according to state officials.

One major requirement of the Aquaculture permit is to submit the structural integrity engineering assessments for each facility. Through this assessment, WDFW will evaluate whether they find the net pens in good working order for Cooke to receive a fish transport permit--which are separate permit from the Marine Aquaculture Permit--to outplant the fish from the hatchery into the respective net pen facility.

There is also a “No Recovery Plan” Cooke must develop.

State lawmakers made the decision to ban Atlantic salmon farming after a Cooke net pen in Puget Sound broke, leading to a mass escape.

The approval has been two years in the making. The group applied to shift to steelhead trout farming at its Puget Sound farms in January 2019.

The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife approved Cooke's farming plans in early 2020.

“This decision is a victory, not only for science, but also for food security and job creation in rural areas,” said Northwest Aquaculture Alliance (NWAA) Executive Director Jeanne McKnight. “Despite the concerted misinformation campaign that some anti-aquaculture ENGO groups have waged against marine aquaculture, in the end, such groups failed to prove any negative impacts of fish farming on the marine environment."

Last October McKnight criticized clothing company Patagonia for siding up with the NGO the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC), to launch a video campaign disparaging Cooke's operations.