A worker at Cooke Aquaculture's Atlantic salmon hatchery in Bingham appears to step on a fish in a video from the animal rights group, Compassion Over Killing, which released undercover footage that showed hatchery workers abusing fish. Credit: Courtesy of Compassion Over Killing

State animal welfare investigators are looking into the alleged cruel treatment of Atlantic salmon at a Bingham fish hatchery run by a Canadian company that raises the fish for food.

An animal welfare group that promotes vegan eating released undercover video footage Monday that showed hatchery workers abusing fish and showed fish at the hatchery with fungus growing on them. The release of the footage drew a swift apology from Cooke, a New Brunswick-based company that has hatcheries in western Maine, pens in the Gulf of Maine and a processing plant in Machiasport.

Glenn Cooke, CEO of the Cooke family of companies, said he was “disappointed and deeply saddened” by video of workers abusing fish found during what the Washington, D.C.-based vegan group Compassion Over Killing called “a first-of-its-kind undercover investigation” of a fish farm. He said the company plans a “rigorous re-training program” at the facility.

“As a family company, we place animal welfare high in our operating standards and endeavor to raise our animals with optimal care and consideration of best practice. What we saw today is most certainly not reflective of these standards,” said Cooke, who added that leaders of his company had met with Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry workers on Sept. 17 but had only seen the footage Monday.

Jim Britt, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, confirmed the investigation by the department’s animal welfare program.

The undercover footage allegedly shows fish whose eyes have been eaten by other fish; improper anaesthetization during vaccination and fin clipping; fish thrown into buckets and left to suffocate; and extreme overcrowding at the hatchery, where the salmon spend about 18 months before they’re brought to Cooke’s penstocks off Maine’s coast.

Mike Wolf, director of investigations for Compassion Over Killing, said that the organization investigated Cooke over nearly four months with a person working there undercover from January to April and shooting the footage. The organization decided to investigate Cooke essentially at random, he said.

“We were in the area and they were hiring,” Wolf said.

Compassion turned its findings over to the Animal Welfare program of the agriculture department within a few months of finishing its investigation. Compassion Over Killing released its findings Monday after receiving word that state investigators had made their own site visit, Wolf said.

It is unclear when animal welfare investigators will conclude their investigation.

Cooke, meanwhile, said officials at his company are working with state workers to “ensure all our practices are within compliance.

“We are speaking with all our employees, and we will institute a rigorous re-training program at our Maine facility. This is one that we apply across all our global operations to enforce the importance of animal welfare. We understand that animal health and welfare are an important piece of raising animals, and [we] are in position to manage those pieces effectively,” Cooke said.

Formed in 1995, Compassion Over Killing advertises itself on its website as a national nonprofit 501(c)(3) animal advocacy organization that exposes cruelty to farmed animals and promotes vegan eating. It has investigated all forms of animal-based agriculture, including the slaughter or maintenance of dairy cows, chickens and pigs, but had never before investigated fish-pen aquaculture, Wolf said.

Cooke has been raising salmon in Maine since 2004, and it has effectively built itself a salmon monopoly in the Gulf of Maine in that time. The company also raises salmon off the coast of Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, and in Atlantic Canada, Chile and Scotland.

Cooke has started working with state and federal agencies on an effort to restore wild salmon to the Penobscot River. That effort does not involve Cooke’s hatchery operations.