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Salmon farm sues after state cancels its lease

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific is appealing after Washington state last month canceled a lease for one of its farmed salmon operations in Port Angeles.

In a lawsuit filed in Clallam County Superior Court Thursday, Cooke said it was not in default of its net pen lease and there was no basis for the terminating its contract.

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"We can only assume that the recent decision to terminate the Port Angeles lease is based upon misinformation or a misunderstanding of the facts and history related to this site," said Joel Richardson, a Cooke vice-president said in a statement Friday.

Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz ended the company's 10-year aquatic lands lease last month, saying the Canadian company had violated the terms of the lease at that site.

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In August, net pens at Cooke's facility at Cypress Island collapsed, releasing thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. The state is currently investigating that collapse.

After the salmon escape, Franz directed her staff to inspect every net pen in the state to make sure the company was meeting its contract and to ensure the state's waters were safe.

The agency said a December inspection found "serious safety concerns" at the Port Angeles site. It said two net pens were outside its lease area, and two of the net pens' anchor chains were not connected. Franz also said the company has failed to maintain the salmon farm in a safe condition, posing the risk of another fish escape.

Franz said Friday that her team will defend against what she called a "meritless lawsuit."

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"I encourage Cooke Aquaculture to drop this lawsuit and work collaboratively with the Department of Natural Resources to safely close down the facility," she said.

Cooke owns and operates eight commercial salmon farms in Washington state which it bought from Icicle Acquisition Subsidiary in 2016. It is the nation's largest producer of farmed salmon.

The Department of Natural Resources approved the transfer of those farm leases in 2016 and didn't raise concerns about the way its predecessor was managing the leased aquatic area, Richardson said.

The company is asking a judge to find that the state agency was wrong in declaring Cooke in default of the lease.

The farm holds nearly 700,000 juvenile Atlantic salmon that won't be ready to be harvested until late this year. The company estimated that it has invested $4.5 million in fish at that farm.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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