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Conservation groups sue WDFW over permit allowing Cooke Aquaculture to farm native steelhead

The lawsuit, filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy and other groups, claims farming native steelhead could have significant environmental impacts on Puget Sound.

Editor's note: The above video previously aired on KING 5 in 2018.

Several environmental and conservation groups are sounding off about the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's (WDFW) decision allowing Cooke Aquaculture to farm native steelhead.

In January, WDFW approved a five-year permit for Cooke Aquaculture to farm all-female, sterile rainbow trout/steelhead in the company's existing net pens. 

WDFW said it determined the disease, escape, and genetic risks of farming sterile steelhead were "similar to or perhaps lower" than the risks related to farming the Atlantic salmon.

The Wild Fish Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit on Tuesday challenging WDFW's decision. 

The groups claim, "state agencies have failed to evaluate the scientific evidence that fish feedlots would harm federally-listed steelhead, salmon, and Southern Resident killer whales, degrade water quality, and damage the overall health of Puget Sound."

The change in policy from WDFW comes following the escape of about 250,000 non-native Atlantic salmon after a Cooke-operated net pen collapsed at Cypress Island in 2017.

After that, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill outlawing the farming of non-native species in Washington's marine waters when the current aquatic land leases end in 2022. The law does, however, allow for the farming of native finfish. 

RELATED: Cooke Aquaculture to start farming native steelhead in Washington

As a result, Cooke proposed transitioning from farming non-native Atlantic salmon to native sterile steelhead trout.

The lawsuit claims this change in species poses, "significant environmental risks and that it depends on mitigation measures that will not prevent the well-documented environmental harm this proposal poses to Puget Sound."

WDFW said it's requiring Cooke to follow a series of procedures to ensure this permit does not compromise native fish populations. For instance, Cooke must farm only all-female triploid steelhead trout from embryos originating from Troutlodge in Bonney Lake. 

Other requirements range from escape prevention, response, disease reporting, and biosecurity. To learn more about the permit and its requirements, head to the WDFW website.

RELATED: Cooke Aquaculture to pay $2.75 million over 2017 net-pen collapse