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Exclusive: Maine investigation of Cooke reveals 'poor handling of fish', prompts reform

The 99-page report details the state of Maine's investigation into Cooke's hatchery where animal cruelty was documented in October.

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The state of Maine has completed its investigation into animal cruelty charges reported earlier this year at Cooke Aquaculture's operations in Bingham, Maine, where shocking video footage publicly released by animal rights group Compassion Over Killing (COK) in October showed tanks filled with fungus and salmon being stomped on. The Atlantic salmon hatchery supplies product for Martha Stewart's True North Seafood line.

In a 99-page report obtained by IntraFish, Liam Hughes, director of Maine's Animal Welfare Program (AWP), described a culture at the facility that lacked formal training of staff, among other shortcomings.

"During the course of this inquiry I noted a workplace culture where bad techniques for handling and euthanasia were being taught by one staff member to another with no formal structure," Hughes wrote.

Joel Richardson, a spokesman for Cooke, confirmed with IntraFish the company was informed by the state it had closed its investigation on Nov. 8 because Cooke was "making every effort to improve standards at the facility."

"We updated our standard operating plans and enhanced procedures and training for fish handling protocols," he said. "Additionally, Cooke retrained all other employees who handle live fish in Maine, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia."

Cooke makes changes

Hughes noted in his report that following the disturbing incidents revealed by COK's hidden camera footage, Cooke provided him with an updated health management plan. According to the report, the plan is a revision from a 2015 version.

The new plan includes among other things the daily observation of the "appearance and behavior of all stocks" for signs of distress or ill health.

The training document also emphasizes the employee's responsibility to "nurture healthy animals."

"Deliberate animal cruelty is NOT and will NOT be practiced or condoned," it reads. "If equipment, production practices or the actions of the other employees may or may not have unintended or unnecessary animal harm, it is your responsibility to report this immediately to your supervisor."

Richardson noted the company is currently "strengthening the feedback loop with employees at all levels of the organization to ensure best practices are being followed and mechanisms are in place for staff to share concerns and report issues."

""There were less than 10 workers at the plant, and the supervisors were trying to manage the chaos," according to the report."

Hughes concluded in his report Cooke Aquaculture did take responsibility for what happened and has taken appropriate action to improve training and operations.

"At this point, except for another follow up visit during the winter, I will be closing this complaint,"he concluded.

He did, however, note his agency's lack of knowledge on the subject of salmon farming, and recommended that another state agency "oversee these operations with regular inspections."

"One of the biggest challenges to this investigation was a lack of experience with this species and type of aquaculture," he wrote.

'Managing chaos,' 'lack of training,' and a 'very stressful' work culture

Cooke's issues with animal welfare at its Maine facility date back to earlier this summer, according to the report.

On June 12, AWP received an email from animal rights group COK, which went undercover at Cooke Aquaculture's operation. The email included links to 17 hours of unedited video of a COK member that had worked at the plant.

The video, which shows workers stomping on the heads of salmon at the plant, also showed fish thrown "20 to 30 feet from one tank to another," according to Hughes' report.

On June 21, Hughes responded to COK, acknowledging the complaint. Per the department's policy, Hughes in July met with COK counsel Keith Jamison as well as the unnamed COK member who made the video and witnessed the actions.

Prior to that meeting, Hughes said he contacted Steve Hedlund from the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) to learn more about its Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification audits because the Cooke facility was part of GAA "and was regularly audited to adhere to Best Aquaculture Practices (BAPs)." **

Hughes said BAP's best management practices for Cooke were then used by the state in the investigation, given the absence of the state having its own best management practices (BMPs) for salmon aquaculture. Representatives with the BAP program said in October its integrity team was investigating the matter.

BAP's work with Cooke on the issue is ongoing, said Richardson. "We are also working with our BAP Certification Body to verify our corrective actions to ensure we are in compliance with the BAP standards."

In June, Hughes also said he met with David Russell, a fish pathologist for Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to review several sections of the disturbing footage. Together the two concluded "a concussive blow to the head was an acceptable practice for culling fish from the tanks, but it was not being done properly on the video."

Their notes also said fish in the video were handled by Cooke employees in ways that could damage the fish and put them at risk of infection.

On July 19, Hughes and Maine Assistant Attorney General Mark Randlett met with COK to discuss its complaint and charges that included a lack of formal training, methods for euthanizing fish, a "lack of staff" and "a work culture that was very stressful for the staff and also the fish" at the Maine plant where the footage was recorded.

"There were less than 10 workers at the plant, and the supervisors were trying to manage the chaos," according to the report.

In September, Hughes visited the plant and recommended staff have better training on how to handle the fish, "proper" euthanasia equipment and techniques, and "disease protocols for the staff to recognize and prevent health issues with the fish."

Richardson said the company took "immediate action and retrained all Bingham, Maine, hatchery employees within 48 hours of the company being made aware of the complaint."

When Hughes returned in October, he was shown an updated copy of Cooke's health management plan that included revisions to the "euthanasia, safe handling, and disease recognition as well, and a training PowerPoint that covered these changes."

Hughes does not report that Cooke's operations were ever suspended during the investigation, and does not give detail on whether employees involved were reprimanded or fired. It does state there have been "several human resource matters that have been dealt with internally at Cooke Aquaculture" since the investigation began.

Hughes also noted Cooke installed new fish processing equipment, which he described as "a table mounted captive bolt machine specifically designed for use on fish" is "widely used in the fishing industry." The report said Cooke had implemented a method of "euthanasia by overdose of Tricaine S in water for the culling of fish if needed during the moving process."

Martha Stewart Line not impacted

Washington, DC-based COK described the video as part of a larger campaign to end cruelty in the farmed salmon sector, and the organization is gathering signatures in hopes of pressuring Martha Stewart to terminate her True North salmon line partnership with Cooke.

So far, according to COK, Stewart has not altered her relationship with Cooke.

On Nov. 16, COK reported Stewart "refused to discuss the matter" when approached at a meet-and-greet in Washington, DC.

The company's True North partnership with Stewart has not changed Cooke's Richardson said. "It's a done issue, as far as we're concerned," he told IntraFish. "We issued a very clear statement on it, and we took immediate action to resolve it. The situation has been dealt with and we've moved on."

**Correction: A previous version of this story said Hughes contacted Steve Hedlund from the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), to specifically learn more about its BAP certification audits of Cooke's facility in Maine. Hughes contacted Hedlund to learn in general terms how BAP audits work.

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