Nfld. & Labrador

Aquaculture conference overshadowed by fish die-off, bickering

An aquaculture conference in St. John's is being overshadowed by a massive fish die-off and a war of words between industry leaders and the fisheries union.

Company won't say how many fish have died, but pledges its commitment to industry

Salmon being raised in open-net pens like these on in the Coast of Bays-Fortune Bay area on Newfoundland's south coast began dying earlier this month because of high water temperatures, says Northern Harvest Sea Farms. (Northern Harvest Sea Farms)

An aquaculture conference in St. John's is being overshadowed by a massive fish die-off on Newfoundland's south coast, a war of words between industry leaders and the fisheries union, and new regulations that require producers to be more transparent when problems arise.

Dozens of delegates have gathered at the Delta Hotel this week for the annual Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association's Cold Harvest 2019 conference.

Newfoundland and Labrador's aquaculture industry supports an estimated 400 direct jobs, and has an annual production value of $200 million, according to Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne. (Northern Harvest Sea Farms)

Leaders are trying to bolster an industry that supports 400 direct jobs in hard-hit rural outports, with an annual production value of more than $200 million.

Salmon in hot water

But a company's attempts to clean up thousands of dead fish in the Coast of Bays-Fortune Bay area has reignited debate over the industry, which has been scrutinized for repeated infectious outbreaks, escapes, an outpouring of government money, and what some say is a threat to wild fish.

Salmon in open-net pens operated by Northern Harvest Sea Farms began dying in large numbers earlier this month, with the company blaming unusually high water temperatures.

Northern Harvest Sea Farms director of communications Jason Card says the company has been transparent about the die-off. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Spokesman Jason Card said salmon thrive in water temperatures between 5 and 15 C, but for a stretch of nearly two weeks in late August, he said, temperatures hovered between 18 and 21 C.

"Temperature spikes are not abnormal, but for that length of time they are," Card said Wednesday morning.

No viruses. No threat to human health. Sea lice aren't to blame, said Card, with the dead fish to be rendered into pet food instead of being served in restaurants and at dinner tables — no different than a farmer whose crops are damaged by frost or drought, he said.

Disclosure methods defended

The die-off began Sept. 2, and it was nearly three weeks before the matter made headlines. But Card defended the company's disclosure methods, saying the company was in constant contact with government, municipal and Indigenous leaders, the workers, and the Fish, Food and Allied Workers' union.

More than 100 Northern Harvest employees are represented by the FFAW, and so are 90-plus workers at a Barry Group plant in Harbour Breton, where marketable fish are processed.

So Card said he was blindsided this week when FFAW president Keith Sullivan suggested during media interviews that the company was hiding information about potential environmental impacts of the die-off.

"What was unfortunate was that the president of the FFAW went out and gave the impression that he didn't have information when we had been communicating on a regular basis," said Card.

The executive director of the aquaculture association, Mark Lane, also attacked Sullivan, calling his comments deceitful.

"He lied. He says that the company wasn't transparent. How much more transparent can you be?" said Lane.

Newfoundland Aquaculture Industries Association executive director Mark Lane accused the president of the Fish, Food & Allied Workers' union of lying. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Lane said the union should spend more time worrying about its ongoing feud with FISH-NL, which is trying to unseat the FFAW as the union representing inshore fish harvesters in the province.

"(Sullivan) has his own political problems and he's using us as a political football. I suggest to Keith to go sort out your own backyard before you enter mine," said Lane.

A blow to company's public image

Sullivan was not available for comment Wednesday, but the union is not backing down. 

"I think it's meant as a distraction from the really major, serious issue that's happened on the south coast," FFAW spokesperson Jessica McCormick said of the comments by Card and Lane.

Jessica McCormick, director of public affairs for the Fish, Food and Allied Workers' union, says protection of the environment is the union's top priority. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

McCormick said there are hundreds of thousands of dead fish on the south coast.

"That's something they need to grapple with, and calling names and taking shots at the union is doing nothing to improve their public image," she said.

The union makes no secret of the fact it's not sold on the merits of aquaculture.

"I think we need to have a broader conversation … about what this industry looks like, what kind of jobs they're offering to people, and what are the alternatives that create good jobs for people working in the industry," said McCormick, who said protection of the marine environment is the union's top priority.

24-hour disclosure rule

Coincidentally, the fish cleanup was happening as Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne took the podium at the conference Wednesday to announce new policies and procedures for the industry.

One of the new policies requires companies to promptly disclose incidents like the one on the south coast, with notices posted on the aquaculture association's website.

"We've heard time and time again that in order to maintain public trust … in what's happening in the aquaculture industry, good early disclosure is really important," said Gerry Byrne.

"And what these regulations now do is they require public disclosure upon confirmation of events within 24 hours."

Byrne says Northern Harvest Sea Farms should have been quicker to disclose what happened. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

And Byrne has criticized Northern Harvest.

"To be able to provide facts, to provide that information to the public so there was no speculation as to what the cause was, I think that's good practice," he said. "And that's not what the company did in this particular case."

Card acknowledged that some lessons have been learned.

"I certainly don't want a situation where someone can raise alarm bells going forward and act like they didn't have information that they had, so we'll certainly look at how we disclose to the public," he said.

Standing behind its workers

Meanwhile, Card said he couldn't say how much longer the cleanup will take, or exactly how many fish have died, but said the company is deploying all the resources — dive teams and fishing vessels — it can to recover the fish.

As for the workers and the future of the company, he said Northern Harvest and its new parent company, Mowi, is committed to Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It is our intention to take care of the folks that are dependent on us for employment," said Card, adding that there are plans to modify the open-net pens to avoid future temperature-related die-offs.

"We have to act as though this temperature spike is not an isolated incident. We have to accept it as a new normal so that we're ready to deal with it," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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