N.B. seafood giant won't be disciplined after animal cruelty investigation

Canadian aquaculture giant Cooke Seafood will not be sanctioned following an animal cruelty investigation into its Atlantic salmon hatchery in Bingham, Maine.

The Maine Department of Agriculture's animal welfare division said the New Brunswick-based company addressed unsavoury practices revealed in a hidden-camera exposé carried out by an activist group.

Earlier this year, an undercover operative working for Washington-based animal rights organization Compassion over Killing secretly recorded hours of video at the Cooke hatchery.

It turned over 17 hours of video to the State of Maine in June as part of an animal cruelty complaint.

"Cooke Aquaculture did take responsibility for what happened and has taken appropriate action to improve training and operations," wrote Liam Hughes, director of Maine's animal welfare program.

"At this point, except for another follow-up during the winter, I will be closing this complaint," he said in his final report on the investigation.

The document was released under the Freedom of Access Act in the U.S. and first reported by two online industry publications, Intrafish and SeafoodSource.com.

Compassion Over Killing

In October, the group publicly released a gruesome highlight reel nearing five minutes in length that showed fish stomped on, bashed against solid objects and tossed for long distances by the tail.

It also featured deformed and diseased salmon videotaped at the facility.

In September, the state informed Cooke of the contents of the video, inspected the facility and made recommendations to improve training and conditions at the hatchery.

"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. The intent of the staff in the video was to euthanize the fish that needed to be culled, not to intentionally cause suffering to the fish," Hughes wrote.

Hidden-camera video gets action

"The hidden-camera footage from COK highlighted this and may have been instrumental in highlighting the problems to Cooke Aquaculture that inspired them to take action," Hughes wrote.

As soon as the video was made public, Cooke CEO Glenn Cooke issued a statement condemning practices at the hatchery as unacceptable.

"We took immediate action in September and retrained all Bingham, Maine, hatchery employees within 48 hours of the company being made aware of the complaint by the Maine [Agriculture] Department even before the video was released in October," spokesperson Joel Richardson said in an email to CBC News.

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

What the follow-up inspection found

In October, Hughes went back to the Bingham facility and said Cooke had implemented his recommendations for training, proper euthanasia techniques and equipment, and a health protocol to manage and control disease.

"A table-mounted captive bolt machine specifically designed for use on fish and that is widely used in the fishing industry is now part of the process as well as euthanasia by overdose of Tricaine S in water for culling of fish if needed during the moving process," Hughes said.

State investigation triggered industry audit

Maine had no best practice standards to guide its hatchery investigation, nor is any state agency responsible for regulating aquaculture facilities.

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

The state turned to the Global Aquaculture Alliance, an industry association that uses independent experts to develop best aquaculture practice (BAP) standards and employs third-party auditors to carry out its certification. The organization certifies 2,247 fish farms, processing plants, hatcheries and feed mills worldwide that meet those standards, including Cooke.

Tim Greenway/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The state investigation triggered an audit by the Global Aquaculture Alliance.

"We confirm that the BAP certification body conducted an investigation at the Bingham, Maine, hatchery, accepted the corrective actions that Cooke Aquaculture enacted, and continues to work with the company to ensure that it is in compliance with the BAP standards," spokesperson Steven Hedlund said in an email to CBC.

He said he was not in a position to comment on how or why the alliance's annual audit failed to detect the conditions exposed by the activists.

Activists tied to vegan competition

While acknowledging the failings at the Bingham hatchery, Cooke has also attacked the motives of Compassion over Killing, the non-profit that promotes vegan diets.

COK board chair Amy Trakinski is also managing director of VegInvest, an investment fund that backs companies that make plant-based alternatives to meat and seafood, which is in effect competition for Cooke and others in the seafood industry.

Compassion Over Killing

COK investigation director Mike Wolf told CBC in October the group promotes "plant-based eating as a way to build a kinder world, and in doing so, we promote plant-based food companies.

"But, we do not have any ties to them outside of that."

Compassion Over Killing lawyer Will Lowery said the organization is aware of the outcome.

"Although we are disappointed, we remain optimistic that there will ultimately be accountability for the acts of cruelty depicted in the videos and are actively pursuing other avenues of enforcement," Lowery said in a statement to CBC.