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A destroyed pen at Cooke Aquaculture’s Atlantic salmon fish farm off Cypress Island. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

A controversial proposal by a beleaguered fish farming operation will remain open for public comment for several more days as the state works to reel in perspectives before issuing a final decision.

The proposal in question comes from Cooke Aquaculture, the company responsible for a series of net pens located in Puget Sound. In 2017 one of those net pens collapsed and allowed at least a quarter million non-native Atlantic salmon to escape. At the time of the escape the company stated that the fish would not be able to fend for themselves and would die quickly in the wild. However, Atlantic salmon were discovered by anglers periodically for at least eight months after the escape with some of those fish winding up many miles up tributary rivers near traditional salmon spawning grounds.

Cooke Aquaculture initially blamed the escape on high tides caused by a solar eclipse. However, further inspection revealed that inadequate maintenance procedures had allowed marine debris to build up on the structure, weighing it down comprising its integrity to the point of failure.

Just over two years since those invasive fish were accidentally released into Washington’s waterways Cooke Aquaculture is now asking permission to begin raising steelhead in their Puget Sound net pens. The proposal has generated enough feedback from the public that the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) comment period has already been extended twice. That sliding window for providing comments is now set to close at 5 p.m. on Nov. 22.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has already issued a SEPA mitigated determination of non-significance regarding the proposal for Cooke Aquaculture to switch from rearing Atlantic salmon to steelhead. The proposal notes that the fish would be sterile “triploid” rainbow trout, as opposed to native steelhead with the capacity to reproduce in the wild.

“We know that there is significant public interest in this proposal,” said WDFW director Kelly Susewind, in a press release. “We want to provide stakeholders with the best opportunity to make their voices heard in this process.”

Cooke Aquaculture operates a juvenile fish rearing facility in Rochester. Atlantic salmon have been documented swimming freely in at least a dozen streams in Washington since 2003, including Scatter Creek, a tributary to the Chehalis River that flows through Rochester.

Cooke Aquaculture submitted a five-year Marine Aquaculture permit application to the WDFW back in January. Additional supporting documents and a SEPA checklist were provided in July. The company’s proposal to switch over to steelhead farming includes net pens near Rich Passage and Skagit Bay that are currently in operation. However, the plan leaves open the possibility of adding up to three more net pens in Puget Sound.

Official documents associated with the proposal can be viewed online at wdfw.wa.gov/licenses/environmental/sepa/open-comments. Written comments can be provided at that website as well.

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