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Environment and Outdoors

State Investigators Say They Won't Pursue Further Action Against Cooke Aquaculture

Compassion Over Killing
A Bingham, Maine, worker stomps on a fish in footage released by the group Compassion Over Killing

State investigators have declined to file charges or pursue further action in response to allegations of workers mishandling fish at a Cooke Aquaculture salmon hatchery in Bingham.

Investigators from the state's Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry launched an inquiry earlier this year, after the animal rights group Compassion Over Killing filed a complaint, which included video footage from the hatchery that appears to show workers stomping and slamming fish and leaving them in buckets to die.

In its report on the case, investigators from the Department's Animal Welfare Program say that they had "no experience investigating land-based aquaculture or Salmon" before looking into the complaint. Because of that, Department officials say they worked with other state agencies to investigate the video footage. Ultimately, the state recommended that Cooke institute better training and procedures, and visited the facility to ensure the trainings were completed. The Department is also planning another follow-up visit in December.

In an email, Ann Gibbs, the director of the Department's division of animal and plant health, said that the agency closed the case because it "found an attitude at the facility to make these improvements and do a better job in the future."

Gibbs added that the Department has "no plans to file any charges at this time, and the Animal Welfare Program within DACF has no regulatory authority to fine Cooke like the DEP has in the past for violations. DACF is satisfied that Cooke has changed their procedures to comply with the best management practices recognized by the state."

But the group that initially filmed the footage isn't satisfied. Will Lowrey, an attorney with Compassion Over Killing, says he is disappointed in the state's decision.

"However, I will note that we are still optimistic," said Lowrey. "We are actively pursuing other enforcement opportunities. And so we believe ultimately there will be some accountability for the criminal actions that took place in the video."

Cooke spokesperson Joel Richardson said in an email that the company is "making every effort to improve standards at the facility." Richardson said the company immediately retrained the hatchery's employees and has since "retrained all other employees who handle live fish in Maine, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia."

As part of their findings, investigators are also recommending that other state agencies which specialize in aquatic animals should look into developing animal welfare monitoring programs, as they say the Department had a "lack of experience" with this type of aquaculture. The report says that regular inspections from agencies such as the Department of Marine Resources could help prevent similar complaints in the future.