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

A state investigation into animal cruelty allegations found no criminal wrongdoing but compelled a host of improvements at a Bingham salmon hatchery where a vegan activist group took undercover video.

Maine Animal Welfare Director Liam Hughes reviewed 17 hours of unedited video collected by Compassion Over Killing that documented abuse of Atlantic salmon at the Cooke Aquaculture hatchery before overseeing the improvements, according to his 99-page investigation report.

The video shot by an undercover member of the group shows fish whose eyes had 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 pen stocks off Maine’s coast.

Cooke, a New Brunswick-based company, has its hatchery in Bingham, pens in the Gulf of Maine and a processing plant in Machiasport.

State officials informed Cooke on Sept. 17-18 of Compassion Over Killing’s videos. The company responded by giving its workers training in fish handling at its Bingham facility within 48 hours, Cooke spokesman Joel Richardson said.

State officials also advised the company to train its workers in proper euthanasia techniques and the equipment need to practice them.

By Oct. 22, Cooke had updated its health management plan and trained its workers at other facilities in safe fish handling and disease recognition as recommended by the Global Aquaculture Alliance, an international organization.

The company has since instituted new practices, including gentler handling, to reduce stress on its fish and it gave workers training to help them better understand their responsibilities as humane farmers, according to Hughes’ report.

But the change in practices is not enough, said Will Lowrey, an attorney for Compassion Over Killing. Workers at Cooke who abused fish should have been arrested, he said.

“There is nothing in that report that excuses the acts documented in the videos,” Lowrey said Friday. “It is no justification to say that the state has a lack of experience. That just points to the lack of oversight.”

One possible reason for the lack of criminal charges is the apparently unprecedented nature of the cruelty complaints and the lack of a state agency assigned to oversee aquaculture facilities, Hughes wrote in his report.

Hughes recommended that a state agency that “specializes in aquatic animals look into developing oversight in animal care at this type of aquaculture facility.”

“One of the biggest challenges to this investigation was the lack of experience with this species and type of aquaculture,” wrote Hughes, adding that other agencies that “oversee these operations with regular inspections could help prevent these kinds of complaints in the future.”

Maine’s sole aquafarmer of Atlantic salmon, Cooke has been raising the fish in Maine since 2004, and it has effectively built itself a salmon monopoly in the Gulf of Maine in that time.

Maine law defines cruelty to animals as when someone “kills or attempts to kill any animal belonging to another person without the consent of the owner or without legal privilege.” It includes anyone who “injures, overworks, tortures, torments, abandons, or cruelly beats or intentionally mutilates an animal.”

Under state law, “animal” means “every living, sentient creature not a human.” It can be a Class C or D crime. Class C crimes are punishable by up to five years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Class D crimes carry penalties of up to 364 days behind bars and a $2,000 fine, according to the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has no plans to seek legislation that would grant it responsibility for overseeing fish farms, department spokesman Jim Britt said.

Cooke will continually update its fish health and safety standards, Richardson said.

“We are making every effort to improve standards at the facility,” Richardson said. “We continuously seek opportunities for improvement of our practices.”