Salish Fish, Kurt Grinnell’s legacy, prepares for launch as Cooke Aquaculture reboots Washington operations

Salish Fish, a joint venture between family-owned Cooke Aquaculture Pacific LLC and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, has officially launched and is moving forward with plans to stock its ocean fish farm in Port Angeles Harbor, Washington, U.S.A. with native steelhead and possibly sablefish in the coming months, according to the company and the tribe.

For Cooke, the move represents a reboot of its Washington operations after a 2017 escape at its Cypress Island farm led to the state banning the farming of non-native finfish, effectively phasing out Cooke’s Atlantic salmon farming.

For Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Chairman W. Ron Allen, the project is the legacy of Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Council member and Jamestown Seafood CEO Kurt Grinnell, who died in a one-vehicle car accident following a Northwest Aquaculture Alliance meeting in April.

“The council and I as chairman looked to him for guidance in everything we’re doing,” Allen told SeafoodSource. “The passion and vision he brought to the table and how much he cared about the seafood industry, gave us a lot of confidence that this was the right thing to do.”

Cooke has already received approval from Washington’s Department of Ecology and the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to transition to farming steelhead, though conservation groups have sued to block their issuance.  But the company requires its lease for its Port Angeles farm to be reinstated by Washington’s Department of Natural Resources before it can begin operations there, according to Cooke Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson. Richardson told SeafoodSource he couldn’t comment on the issue other than to say discussions between the department and the company “are ongoing.”

“All our farm sites in Washington have been fallow since October 2020,” Richardson said.  “After significant public consultation and scientific review, we have been approved by the state to stock our Hope Island site this month, and basically start back up our production in Washington with native trout into the fall.”

Richardson said the revamping of the Port Angeles site with new Steinsvik Viking/Nordic galvanized steel cages, and the installation of new platforms and moorings, will give the farm the ability to withstand major weather events. The farm will also be supplied with state-of-the-art feeding and monitoring systems, electronic fish counters and underwater cameras to observe fish behavior and allow for better control of feeding and environmental areas, and anti-fouling underwater net washing machines to “ensure the cage is consistently free of debris or material that may otherwise compromise the integrity of the structure.”

“Monitoring will include monthly video-recorded inspections of all walls and floors of structure, performed by divers, and provided to the Washington Department of Natural Resources, using a scoring system that will allow for timely recognition of changing conditions,” Richardson said.

The investments represent a deeper commitment to the company’s operations in Washington, where Cooke at one time employed around 80 workers. Due to the shutdown of its operations, Cooke retained just a small portion of that total, harming the rural communities where the company operated, Richardson said.

“These sites are in fairly rural communities. They’re not in urban centers. People are looking for work in these particular communities, and as part of our partnership with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, we have put a significant effort into providing jobs and keeping a local economic development focus,” Richardson said, adding that the restart of Cooke’s operations in the state will help local suppliers, vendors, and support services for the aquaculture industry.

Richardson said the partnership with the tribe is key to the Salish Fish project, and that the strong bonds that were forged between Cooke and the tribe through Kurt Grinnell’s leadership remain vital to its hoped-for success.

“So far it’s been a strong working relationship and we expect that will continue,” he said. “In Washington, marine resources are co-managed between the tribes and the state, and we realize how important it is that we work together cooperatively with both as we move ahead here.”

For the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, which has around 550 enrolled citizens, the economic boost the 20-cage farm will provide, with its capacity for growing up to 5 million pounds of steelhead per cycle, is undeniable. But there’s more to the partnership than just economics.

“It diversifies our economic portfolio and provides new revenue from another business, which will have mean we will have better unrestricted resources for our community. So it’s an exciting opportunity for Jamestown,” Allen said. “Like all the other 574 Indian nations in America, we all pursue self-governance and self-reliance, becoming less dependent on federal or state resources. Our businesses are our tax base. We have many other businesses including casino, hospitality, and construction, but seafood is part of our culture. It’s a part of who we are as Indigenous people.”

The tribe, which is based in Blyn, Washington, already operates Jamestown Seafood and Point Whitney Shellfish, which primarily concentrate on oyster-, geoduck-, and clam-farming and seed sales. Grinnell’s encouragement and expertise were central to the tribe pursuing that business, according to Allen, and the Cooke partnership came out of the connections Grinnell formed while running the tribe’s seafood operations. Jim Parsons, currently the general manager of Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, worked with Grinnell for a time at Jamestown Seafood, and Grinnell and Parsons first met with Cooke representatives at a seafood trade show.

“[Grinnell] learned a lot about the Cooke family, and the way they engaged in the industry worldwide,” Allen said. “Kurt convinced me to travel to New Brunswick, [Canada] to see Cooke’s operations. Being a neophyte, I didn’t have any idea how big and sophisticated the operations of the company are. I learned about how they use latest technology, about their respect for the environmental impact of fish-farming, and finding ways of making it environmentally safe. I saw they care about the environment and the communities where they conduct business – all principles near and dear to the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, and the partnership emerged from that experience.”

For several years, Grinnell had been driving the Salish Fish partnership from the tribe’s end, and his sudden loss presented a real threat to its continued existence, Allen said.

“Kurt was a fisherman – it was his family’s traditional practice of making a living. And he was instrumental to the tribe moving into [the aquaculture] industry.  Without a doubt, when we lost Kurt due to his unexpected passing, that just set us back,” he said.  “I’m the chairman for the tribe and so I oversee all tribal operations, but I’ve had to step up to play a more meaningful role until we adjust our seafood operations leadership. But as I’ve dived into this project, I’ve discovered that the model Cooke uses would work for us.”

With Allen’s backing, a division of operations was agreed upon, with the tribe performing the farming operations and Cooke providing technical expertise and “getting the product to market and distributing it,” he said.

Allen insisted Cooke agree to two measures he knew Grinnell was passionate about. First, Cooke will help continue research and trials of sablefish farming that Grinnell had worked on along with NOAA and the University of Washington for the past six years. And secondly, Allen has insisted that Cooke reserve two net-pens at the site for the farming of chinook salmon, with the intention of performing delayed releases of the fish into the natural environment to bolster the struggling natural populations of this species of salmon in the region and to provide additional food for the local southern resident killer whale, or orca, population, which is threatened with starvation if its staple food continues to be depleted due to climate change and habitat degradation. 

“Just two pens alone could release a half-million chinook every year, and we thought that would be a huge win for the whales and the indigenous communities that depend on chinook fishing,” Allen said.

While Allen said the project will have benefits for numerous coastal tribes in Washington, a couple have stepped up to adamantly oppose commercial finfish aquaculture in Puget Sound . Allen said the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe works quite well with those that are against the Salish Fish project, but that ultimately, how his tribe decides to proceed is a matter of sovereignty and belief that the seafood industry has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, and he believes the Tribe must adjust.

“This is about our community and our sovereign rights,” he said. “I don’t need permission of our sister tribe(s) to do things on behalf of our tribe. And the DNR shouldn’t say we need their permission either – there’s no law, regulation, or existing policy on that right. And they shouldn’t interfere to the detriment of our economic goals. Although we believe our Tribe does have a respectful duty to address any concerns about the industry whether it’s environmental or operational.”

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is now engaging in a “very aggressive education and public relations campaign,” using Seattle-based Gallatin Public Affairs, “to make sure our sister tribes see the facts,” Allen said.  He said Cooke’s promises to use all-new equipment, industry-leading aquaculture technology, and its pledge to significantly ramp up its environmental safeguards, are keys to changing minds during the campaign.

“Fish-farming has been around a long, long time in the Northwest … and some tribes have actually been in the industry before, including the Lummi Nation, which used to farm coho, but that didn’t work out for them. The campaign is focused on helping us with the lift of overcoming misperceptions, and I think the facts will speak for themselves. The debate is akin to our current political environment – ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts because my mind is made up,’” he said.  “Our hope is that time is going to heal this a bit. Atlantic salmon sea farming is now outlawed in Washington, so they should stop focusing on a past problem that no longer is a problem. That’s where we are now, is a hope that we can shift perceptions and get back to working positively together on issues like improving our environment and communities, where we actually work quite well together.”

Allen has been actively engaged in Cooke’s effort to convince the Department of Natural Resources to reissue the permit for the farm.

“We have a role to play because of our reputation in the community as a conservation-driven tribe,” he said.  “We are very hopeful it will get resolved this year, as we would like to put those pens back in the water as soon as possible.  We believe we have the right to do this, and that Cooke’s permit to the site is legitimate and that it was withdrawn based on perception and not facts, and we’re very confident will get it back.”

The final piece of the puzzle, Allen said, is convincing local authorities in Port Angeles to embrace the project. The fact that Salish Fish hopes to buy commercial property in the city and renovate it into a processing plant, is a selling point, he said. The tribe would then shift its existing processing operations from nearby Sequim and Blyn and create an estimated 30 new jobs.

“The perception in Port Angeles is, by and large, indifference,” Allen said.  “A few political individuals might say a few things but it’s not representative of the larger community. We know we have lots of friends who are going to be supportive of our venture. And I think the port is very excited about it, because they’re aware this will enhance the economy and create jobs.”

Allen said he’s driven to complete the work of bringing to life the vision of Grinnell, who he described as both an important community leader and a personal long-time friend.

“This commitment to make everything work is driven by a dedication to Kurt and his dream. Kurt basically said there’s no reason we can’t be farmers and use our natural resource of the Salish Sea to take advantage of the opportunities in front of us and ensure our future,” Allen said.  “For us, it’s a shifting from our old dependences in the 20th century to new independence approaches in the 21st century enhancing our local economy. We firmly believe this is going to be successful. In fact, we know it’s successful, because we’ve visited Cooke and seen it work, and what a difference this industry can be to the local community that accepts it. For us, it’s about making a difference for future generations, not just in profits for the company or for the tribe, but a real positive social, economic, and environmental impact for the entire community.”

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