Fishermen in Long Harbour say they are worried about the appearance of bloody, red-coloured herring they're seeing less than a week after Vale's smelter operation in the town started pumping effluent into Placentia Bay.
Long-time fisherman Andy Murphy says he started getting discoloured fish in his nets around May 8-9.
Vale confirmed it started discharging effluent into Placentia Bay on May 5.
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The company insisted there's no connection between the events and no cause for concern given that the effluent meets the requirements under the environmental regulations.
However, Murphy said he and other harvesters in the area are worried about what they are seeing.
"They look like regular herring except the blood is coming out through the sides of them and they're bleeding internally also. Some of them have the scales gone," Murphy told CBC's Fisheries Broadcast.
'We got to stop it before it gets too far and find out what's going on.' - Fisherman Andy Murphy
"I had about 40 [red herring] one day out of 100 … my nets are about a half kilometre from the outfall of the pipeline."
This is not the first time Murphy and other harvesters in the area have seen red herring. Back in the late 1960s when the ERCO phosphorus plant went into production there was an event many people refer to as the "red herring scare."
Effluent from the operation was blamed for a sizeable fish kill and the appearance of red herring. That event resulted in the closure of the plant and the local fishery for an extended period of time.
Murphy said he hopes what he's seeing now it is not a case of déjà vu, adding that he hopes the company and authorities will be quick to address it because — at the very least — he said the fish currently being caught are not suitable for market.
"I wouldn't sell it, no definitely not. I'm using it for lobster bait and I'm not even sure if I should be doing that," he said. "We got to stop it before it gets too far and find out what's going on."
DFO testing fish
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said it is aware of the situation, but added "there is no indication that the condition of the herring is being caused by any pollution."
However, the department said it is having some of the fish tested.
"We are awaiting the results of that testing," a department spokesperson said in an email.
"Scales on herring are quite fragile and are easily rubbed off. While it is not common, it is also not unusual for herring to appear red or bloody and with scales missing after the spawning period or following contact with fishing gear."
DFO said it will continue to monitor the situation in Long Harbour.
Effluent compliant with rules: Vale
Bob Carter, Vale's manager of corporate affairs, said the company is aware of the matter and has alerted the federal and provincial regulators.
'Any effluent we discharge into Long Harbour must be fully compliant with all the regulatory requirements.' - Vale's Bob Carter
He said Vale employees went out with a local harvester for a first-hand look and said they saw fish that "had a reddish discolouration on the outside."
According to Carter, photos and samples were taken and that information was sent off to the provincial and federal government, but at this point he said there is no cause for concern or reason to suggest the red herring being found are connected to the effluent discharge.
"We don't see any connection at all. The reality is that any effluent we discharge into Long Harbour must be fully compliant with all the regulatory requirements," he said.
"We test the effluent before it's discharged, and we did in fact do that on May 5 and the test came back fully compliant with the requirements. Our effluent that we are discharging currently is 99.9 per cent water, with a little bit of salt representing the other .01 per cent."
Carter said he understands the concern from people who recall the situation with ERCO in the late 1960s, but he insists that event is in no way comparable to the current operation in Long Harbour.