Undercurrent News

NL makes 10 changes to net pen rules and Mowi’s Aarskog apologizes

Jason Huffman

Nov 9, 2019
Gerry Byrne, Newfoundland & Labrador’s minister of fisheries and land resources, has made good on his promise to toughen standards on the Canadian province’s net pen aquaculture industry with 10 changes aimed in particular at avoiding a repeat of the recent catastrophe that claimed 2.6 million Atlantic salmon.

The new requirements, which include maintaining net pens at a mandatory depth of 20 meters and the use of aeration devices, were released Monday with no fanfare. But Byrne called a press conference at a government building in St. John’s on Friday to provide a technical briefing and also to share some details from his meeting the night before with Alf-Helge Aarskog, the CEO of Mowi, whose Northern Harvest Sea Farms operation experienced the mass mortalities.

Byrne informed reporters that Aarskog, who was not present for the media event, apologized to Byrne and NL premier Dwight Ball, a detail later confirmed by Mowi (see below).

So far, the aquaculture industry seems okay with the province’s new rules.

“Although we still require clarification on particular aspects of the newly implemented policies and procedures, upon initial review we are confident that we can work with these regulatory changes -- our industry is well-positioned to seize the opportunity, create more new business opportunities and create more jobs,” said Mark Lane, executive director of the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Alliance (NAIA), in a statement.

It was more than two months ago that Northern Harvest reportedly first noticed the mortalities at 10 of its sites in Fortune Bay, off the southern coast of NL, including as many as 72 cages. During several weeks in mid-August, the salmon there experienced unusually warm temperatures that lasted for an extended period of time and caused them to bunch up at the bottom of their 15-meter-deep net pens until they suffocated.

Northern Harvest lost 5,000 metric tons of salmon, half of all its fish in the water, and kicked off a firestorm in the Canadian province that continues to absorb the national media’s attention.

The matter didn’t become public until late September when the local fishermen’s union noticed the dead fish and complained. Then, on Oct. 11, Byrne called a press conference to announce that he was suspending Northern Harvest’s aquaculture licenses after they took too long to give him vital information about the size of the catastrophe. He said he directed the company’s officials to make themselves available to the public and also requested a visit by Aarskog.

Sea lice abundance numbers made public

NL’s new requirements build on existing guidelines that've been updated several times recently, adding changes that seem to address the most recent disaster.

The new net pen depth and aeration equipment requirement – a standard that Mowi already has committed to exceeding -- must be met by the entire industry in the province October 2020. By Jan. 1, 2024, all salmonid sea cage culture operations will be required to meet ISO or certified third-party engineering standards.

But some changes go beyond the recent disaster.

Starting Jan. 1, 2021, salmon farmers in the province must report sea lice abundance numbers publicly on a monthly basis.

Effective immediately, the province’s chief aquaculture veteran and the public must be notified within 24 hours of the detection of disease as well as a quarantine or depopulation order being given, for example. The information provided must include the site impacted, species stocked there and the estimated number of fish affected.

Also, the province’s assistant deputy aquaculture minister must be verbally notified immediately in cases where mortality numbers are found to have increased.

Following a quarantine, a net pen site must be fallow for at least four months.

NAIA’s Lane expressed a desire by the industry to meet the standards.

“Marine aquaculture is a highly innovative and technologically advanced food production industry,” he said in a statement. “We embrace regulations, policies and procedures that are based on science and practicality which further enable transparency, continuous improvement and environmental protection.” he said.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation, a Canadian-based group that frequently spars with the net pen industry in its pursuit of protections for wild-caught salmon is not as confident that they will make a difference, meanwhile.

“While the changes to policy and procedures will ensure more timely public reporting of events like Mowi’s recent mass die off, and will help government collect more information about the industry, upon initial review of the updated manual we do not see how these changes would prevent such an event from occurring again. Policy and procedure is not regulation or legislation," said Stephen Sutton, ASF's director of community outreach and engagement, in a statement.

In particular, ASF said the new sea lice requirement will give the public insight into what’s happening, but companies are not compelled to take any action as a result.

“The Newfoundland and Labrador government had an opportunity to launch significant legislative and regulatory reforms, with support of the public and opposition parties in the House of Assembly, but they have picked the low hanging fruit of policy and procedure," Sutton said.

Aarskog's apology and plan

Independent of the NAIA statement, Mowi’s Aarskog made public on Friday a list of changes he said his Northern Harvest operation would make. The document, which was published on the Northern Harvest Facebook page included:
  • data logging and the submission of environmental parameters for oxygen, temperature and salinity;
  • nets with a minimum depth of 25 feet and aeration systems;
  • an enhanced mass mortality response plan; enhanced training for workers; and
  • the creation of a plan for the timely access of boats needed to clean up in such emergencies.
Aarskog also issued an apology to Newfoundland's Byrne and Ball.

“As the CEO of Mowi ASA, I appreciate the opportunity to meet with both of you," he wrote. "I want to begin right away by acknowledging a mistake that our company made while responding to a significant, unexpected, and unfortunate climate event this summer that took half our fish in Newfoundland and Labrador, in not providing mortality information properly after the mass mortality was first reported in September, we did not live up to both your, and our own expectations. For this, I personally and sincerely apologize as CEO on behalf Mowi ASA.”


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