CBC News - Newfoundland

Northern Harvest's failure to report die-off in salmon pens hurts public trust: Byrne

Sep 29, 2019
An aquaculture company opened itself up to speculation about the cause of a fish die-off in Fortune Bay when it didn't heed government's encouragement to proactively report the incident, says the provincial fisheries minister.

"The truth is the company, by not proactively coming out and talking about this in a sensible, measured way providing facts. they've caused some of this confusion," Gerry Byrne said Tuesday, after the Fish Food & Allied Workers sounded the alarm over the deaths in Northern Harvest Sea Farms pens.

"They've let the FFAW and others frame the argument and frame the discussion, and that's something that the company itself is going to have to learn a lesson about."

Byrne told CBC Radio's The Broadcast that it's frustrating when companies do not report incidents like the die-off, which the company says was caused by prolonged high water temperatures and poses no public health risk. New policies and regulations on public reporting set to be announced by the provincial government Wednesday would increase oversight of the aquaculture industry in Newfoundland and Labrador, he said.

"The purpose of that is to enhance the industry. It's to make sure that there's good public confidence and trust in what happens with our aquaculture sites," he said.

FFAW president Keith Sullivan said he questions that trust after the die-off, which Byrne said both his government and the union were notified of earlier in September.

Sullivan said the large number of dead or decaying salmon in the pens owned by Northern Harvest Sea Farms is of concern to fish harvesters.

"Right now it seems that this has been a massive event with a massive amount of fish."

Sullivan said he believes millions of pounds of salmon may have died from warm water temperature and sea lice. Byrne did not have exact figures, but said the potential number of fish affected could have been up to 2 million. Not all of the salmon in the pens died, he added; some remain healthy and able to go to market.

The company says it doesn't know yet how many deaths there were, but said the information will be provided later through the company's publicly available annual report.

"The company itself, I am more than confident, will be disclosing that information shortly," Byrne said.

Company blames high water temperatures

The affected sites are located in the vicinity of Coast of Bays/Fortune Bay, though they can be up to 30 kilometres apart on the water, Northern Harvest Sea Farms said.

The company's news release does not mention sea lice as a factor in the die-off but points instead to a changing environment as the cause. Northern Harvest Sea Farms spokesperson Jason Card says the pens had high water temperatures over an 11- to 13-day period, causing low oxygen conditions that resulted in fish dying.

"With respect to adapting to the reality of more extreme temperatures, Northern Harvest is currently exploring increasing the depth of our cages and nets to allow our fish the opportunity to swim at lower and cooler temperatures, and is also exploring adding aeration systems," Card said.

Northern Harvest is removing the dead salmon from the pens using all available dive teams in Newfoundland and Labrador, dive teams from New Brunswick and four large purse seiners.

The dead fish are not without potential use, Card said. They will be transported to a rendering plant and could be repurposed in a variety of ways, such as pet feed. However, the goal for the company is for each fish to grow to market size, he said.

Sullivan says harvesters are concerned that fish not removed from cages will have an impact on the environment that fishermen depend on.

"That's an area very fertile lobster ground and other fish."

Northern Harvest says it doesn't know how many fish have died as the information is still being collected but says the deaths pose no harm to humans, the environment, or other fish and shellfish species.

The die-off also poses zero threat to human health, Byrne said, and did not involve any kind of pathogen. The fisheries minister likened the event to when an unexpected frost kills a number of cabbage or turnip plants — unfortunate for the business, but not a health risk for the consumer.

The company isn't providing information about where exactly the fish mortality occurred or when it began.

Sullivan says the deaths raise concerns about open-net pen farming.

"Maybe the answer in on-shore salmon farming. We can't afford to have things like this happen that's going to threaten the environment for fish harvesters," he said.

More details on regulations Wednesday

Further details about the changes to aquaculture industry policies and regulations for the province will be announced Wednesday morning at the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association conference in St. John's, Byrne said.

It's part of an overall regulatory review and reform of the industry that will position Newfoundland and Labrador's aquaculture industry as "surpassing the world as the place of best practice for aquaculture," he said.

The changes were vetted through the industry, Byrne said.

"They recognize that this is a necessary element of the future," he said of the industry.

"You cannot have a successful business if you do not have public trust, and the regulations that Newfoundland and Labrador will be putting in place not only meet that test but exceed it."


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