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Fish-farming company offered money for Washington tribe’s silence about net pens, letters show

  • Author: Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times
  • Updated: October 12
  • Published October 12

A tub with about 50 of the escaped farmed Atlantic salmon ona gillnetter off Cypress Island in August. (Alan Berner/Seattle Times/TNS)

SEATTLE–Cooke Aquaculture offered to pay a premium price for Atlantic salmon caught by the Lummi Nation after a major spill from the company's Cypress Island fish farm if the tribe would not advocate getting rid of net pen aquaculture.

The tribe tartly rejected the offer. "Your demand to keep quiet for a few extra dollars is insulting," Timothy Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, responded in a Sept. 14 letter.

Nell Halse, vice president for communications for Cooke, said Wednesday the offer "was not an attempt to muzzle or insult the Lummi Nation, but rather an effort to negotiate toward common ground and respect the interests and concerns of both parties at the table …"

One of the company's three fish farms at Cypress Island in the San Juans collapsed the weekend of Aug. 20, releasing an estimated 105,000 fish into the water just as native Pacific salmon were returning to their spawning ground. Lummi fishermen recovered the lion's share of the fish on the loose after the tribe launched an emergency fishery.

Going on behind the scenes ever since have been negotiations by the company with tribal and nontribal fishers and firms involved in the cleanup effort.

Lummi told Cooke in a Sept. 11 letter that the company's initial offer of $30 per fish doesn't begin to cover the tribe's cost for staff, paying its fishermen and related expenses. The company agreed to pay more — but there were strings attached, letters between Cooke and the tribe show.

Glenn Cooke, company co-founder and CEO, proposed in a Sept. 13 letter to Ballew paying $42 per fish, instead of $30, " … subject to agreement between the parties that neither party would use the facts surrounding this escape to advocate for a phase out or ban of net pen aquaculture" until a study could be done to evaluate the impacts of the fish escape.

The privately held, family-owned company based in New Brunswick, Canada, is one of the world's largest aquaculture operations, with nearly $2 billion in revenue a year and operations in multiple countries. It spent $500 million this week to buy Omega Protein of Houston, a fishing company that also makes products such as fish oil and fish meal, and it also owns Icicle Seafoods, which it acquired along with all of the company's eight fish farms in Washington in 2016.

Cooke eventually paid the Lummi Nation $1.3 million — $30 a fish.

In addition to the deal it offered the Lummi Nation, worth an extra $521,000, Cooke said it would fund a study "to evaluate impacts that may arise from the escape of fish into your tribal waters."

A farm-raised, escaped Atlantic salmon is transferred to a boat off Cypress Island in August. (Alan Berner/Seattle Times/TNS)

The study was tied to the company's offer of a higher price if the tribe would not advocate for a ban on net pens. "We felt it was appropriate to request that Lummi Nation agree to a temporary hiatus on seeking a ban of our operations until the scientific results of our proposed study were available to determine the true impact of the farmed fish on native fish," Halse wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.

The company also offered to fund for two years a full-time position in the tribe's natural-resources department, and it concluded with an offer to "explore and implement economic partnerships that would be very beneficial to your tribal members, in the form of jobs and revenue, potentially with a total economic benefit that exceeds $1 million annually to the members of your tribe."

Conciliation, business

Cooke started early in its attempts to strike a conciliatory tone with the tribe. In an Aug. 30 letter while the Lummi's emergency fishery was still on, the company wrote Ballew: "As harvesters of salmon, we have much in common, we believe that our company and your people would benefit greatly from an exchange of ideas, values, and technical expertise about our shared enterprise.

"We are prepared to pay a visit to your ancestral lands … we would be delighted to host you on a tour of our sites in Scotland, or Maine or the East Coast of Canada to introduce you to our farmers and see how our systems operate.

"We will continue to identify ways that Cooke Aquaculture Pacific can be a productive partner with the Lummi Nation. Salmon is important to us. But to you we genuinely understand that salmon is much more. Salmon is sacred. It is life. It is sustenance. It is your ancestral tradition, your tribal mythology, your living culture and your promise to the future. Cooke Aquaculture honors this, and seeks to understand it even more in the weeks and months and years ahead."

The tone was more businesslike in Cooke's letter of Sept. 13, demanding an accounting of the tribe's costs if Cooke was to pay more with no agreement from Lummi to go quiet on opposition to fish farms.

Ballew fired back Sept. 14: "Perhaps we should take this opportunity to recap how we got to this place. You failed to ensure that your facility was operated in a responsible manner. You failed to comply with your Aquatic Lands Lease. You failed to comply with the provisions of your (Ecology) permit and you failed to comply with your Fish Escape Prevention Plan. And then you attempted to blame the spill on high tides associated with the solar eclipse.
Do you really think that you are in any position to question our veracity?

" … To be perfectly clear, the Lummi Nation is not willing to be muzzled for an additional $12 per fish."

Ballew, in an interview, said he chose to make the letters public because the company had made it sound in its public statements that it made its eventual payment of $1.3 million "out of the goodness of their heart."

"They are purporting it to be a good-faith gesture when in all reality it is their responsibility to clean up this mess," Ballew said.

After the escape, which is still under state investigation, Gov. Jay Inslee had called on Cooke to capture the escaped fish — or pay others to do it for them. " … I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters," Inslee stated in a news release.

Ecology regards Atlantic salmon as a pollutant in state waters; unauthorized releases are punishable by fines. In a fish-escape recovery plan filed with the state as a condition to operate, Cooke also committed to recapture escaped fish using company skiffs and seines, and/or enlisting tribes or contracting and hiring commercial fishing-boat operators.

In accepting what it called a meager offer from Cooke, the Lummi did not waive any other avenues to attempt to seek compensation for damages, Ballew noted in a letter Sept. 11, including a possible lawsuit.

The tribe is still incurring costs and assessing damage, Ballew said. "In an effort to attempt to mitigate the damages caused by your failure to maintain your facility, we have incurred significant expenses, and will continue to incur significant expenses well into the future," Ballew wrote Cooke.

Fish turned to fertilizer

Far from taking the company's deal, the Lummi have helped lead a charge, now unanimous among Western Washington tribes with treaty-protected fisheries, to shut down net-pen Atlantic salmon aquaculture in Washington.

Meanwhile the company is building up its Washington fish-farm business, moving 1 million more Atlantic salmon to its Clam Bay farm near Bainbridge Island, and bringing nearly 2 million more Atlantic salmon eggs to its Rochester hatchery, with permits granted by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife since the spill. The permit to bring the eggs to the company's land-based hatchery was granted Tuesday and the permit to move more Atlantic salmon to open water net pens was granted Oct. 2.

Meanwhile negotiations are still underway between the company and tribes over the spill. Halse said the company, so far, has paid $1.5 million to tribes involved in the recovery effort, including the Lummi. She said the company offered the same $30-per-fish bounty to each tribal nation, in addition to offering to fund a full-time position on their natural-resource staffs.

However, Riley Starks, who is nonnative, said the company has stiffed his firm for the roughly 2,000 Atlantic salmon his company, Lummi Island Wild, helped recover as a tender to tribal fishers, taking the fish from their boats and transferring the Atlantics to cold storage.

Starks estimated his uncompensated costs at about $30,000 but said his concern was about more than money. "Behind the scenes another drama has been playing out, the unwillingness of Cooke Aquaculture to make good on their legal, financial and moral duty to pay for the cost of cleaning up their mess," Starks said.

Cooke did offer to pay Lummi Island Wild $1.25 per pound for the 8- to 10-pound fish, Halse said, "but they rejected that offer. Instead they asked for the same price we had offered to the tribal fishermen, who had actually caught the fish.

"Lummi Island Wild — which is not a tribe — purchased Atlantic salmon from other fishermen as a speculative business venture without contacting Cooke ahead of time to negotiate a buy-back program."

Starks said he jumped into the fishery, setting the company's normal work aside, not as a moneymaker but a rescue. "I thought it was the right thing to do." He added that Cooke's price was less than his direct costs for hauling and freezing the fish — and less than the roughly $3 a pound offered the tribes.

Cooke sent the 400,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon it bought back from the Lummi to an anaerobic digester, where the fish were converted into methane for power generation and then fertilizer, Halse said.

Riley said he doesn't know what to do with the 2,000 fish he's sitting on. "I don't think it's safe to eat, because they had not had a clean bill of health for release. And we don't want them out in the environment as crab bait, either.

"They don't belong here."

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