Licences yanked for troubled N.L. salmon farm amid revelation of 2.6M dead fish

Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne has suspended the operating licences of a company that now acknowledges far more salmon died at its southern Newfoundland aquaculture operations.

Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne orders Northern Harvest Sea Farms to continue cleanup in Fortune Bay

There are far more dead fish than initially reported in the salmon die-off on Newfoundland's south coast, and the licences of Northern Harvest Sea Farms have been suspended, Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne said Friday afternoon. 

In late August salmon being raised in open net pens in the Fortune Bay area began dying due to high water temperatures, according to Northern Harvest Sea Farms.

"I am suspending all affected Northern Harvest Seafood Farms licences and issuing a directive that requires the company to continue the cleanup of the sites," Byrne said in an emailed statement. 

The company, meanwhile, revealed Friday that 2.6 million dead fish will likely need to be removed at its various sites in southern Newfoundland. 

Byrne said he was told by company officials that additional salmon cages have been affected. Byrne did not reference any numbers or specific figures. 

He said the affected licences for Northern Harvest Sea Farms — a subsidiary of the aquaculture giant Mowi — have been suspended as a "result of the ongoing investigation and evidence of non-compliance."

"I will be amending licence conditions to all unaffected Northern Harvest Seafood Farms and other associated Mowi licence sites in the coming days," Byrne added.

Northern Harvest Sea Farms, which held a news conference in St. John's Friday afternoon, expects that 2.6 million dead salmon will need to be removed because of what it calls a "temperature event." 

The company also said that of that number, 600,000 salmon had not been included in the company's own estimate.

Company reveals extent of die-off

Until Friday, the company had never disclosed the extent of the fish die-off, and an executive told reporters that the company ought to have been more transparent. 

"I want to state for the record that we should have advised earlier of these additional mortalities as they occurred over time," said Jamie Gaskill, managing director of Northern Harvest Sea Farms.

The Fish, Food and Allied Workers posted photos taken by harvesters Wednesday of salmon fat and debris washing up on the shore between Rencontre East and Belleoram. (FFAW)

"We were too focused on cleanup efforts, and we have learned from this experience."

Ten out of 13 sites that Northern Harvest operates are affected, totalling 72 cages.

In total the company said it has 166 cages in the water and is expecting to have cleanup finished by next week.

Sixty-three cages have already been cleaned, Gaskill said.

Gaskill added that no salmon have escaped. The company is required under provincial regulation to report if even one fish had escaped.

Gaskill estimates that about 300,000 salmon are still alive in the company's pens, which he said will be harvested.

However, there will be no restocking of the salmon pens.  

The salmon nets in Fortune Bay have a capacity of two million fish, Byrne said, and with some fish still alive and being harvested there is still no exact number of dead fish.

A spokesperson for the Department of Fisheries and Land resources told CBC that Byrne is travelling to Harbour Breton and not available for an interview. 

'Gross deception'

Both the and NDP and PCs have been ramping up calls for the Liberal government, and Byrne, to do more about the massive die-off, specifically because the company had reported what it called a "mass mortality event" to the government on Sept. 3.

Gerry Byrne, minister of fisheries and land resources, released a statement late on Thursday defending himself against attacks by PC leader Ches Crosbie. (CBC)

Earlier this week Byrne said he had no authority to publicly disclose the death of what could be millions of pounds of salmon. 

Byrne said his department "pressed the company to disclose the event publicly."

PC Leader Ches Crosbie said Thursday the government "covered up" the incident.

"Byrne's excuse that he had no ability to inform the public about the disaster is gross deception," said Crosbie in a media release. 

Byrne defended the actions of government to date, reiterating an earlier announcement that changes will be made to the Newfoundland and Labrador Aquaculture Act to force companies to disclose information to the public. However, the specifics of those changes are unclear.

On Friday the Fish Food and Allied Workers union called for a meeting with Premier Dwight Ball and Mowi to discuss the environmental impacts and inform potentially out-of-work residents about what happens next.

"Obviously the announcement today is a big concern for people and their future down there," FFAW president Keith Sullivan told CBC News.

"We need to meet with the company, certainly, to see what went wrong, what were the issues there and then see what their plans are for here on in."

Marine Institute to investigate

Byrne announced on Thursday, amid calls from the opposition parties for independent reviews of what happened, that the Marine Institute will investigate the salmon deaths. 

Byrne called the organization "autonomous and operates at arm's-length from government."

But the New Democrats say the Marine Institute is not independent enough of the provincial government to conduct such an investigation.

"The Way Forward identifies the Fisheries and Marine Institute, Memorial University, as one of the partners of the sector work plan, along with the government of N.L., the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association, the government of Canada, and the College of the North Atlantic," Dinn said in a statement Friday morning.

"There are too many connections to the aquaculture industry for the Marine Institute to be considered an independent and arm's-length investigator of the die-off."

Dinn said it's time for Premier Dwight Ball to "step in, take action, and restore public trust in government's ability to protect the marine environment," as well as appropriately regulate the industry.

Pink liquid pours out the side of the Eastern Pride, which has been hired for the cleanup at the Northern Harvest Sea Farms aquaculture pens in Fortune Bay. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

Third-party testing of the fish is already underway, said Byrne, with samples sent off to both the Atlantic Veterinary College on Prince Edward Island and the University of New Brunswick.

What's more, Gaskill said his company will use MAMKA, an indigenous marine stewardship organization to monitor the extent of the salmon die-off on the environment and to monitor the recovery of the surrounding environment.

The organization will lower cameras into the water near the salmon pens which will document the impact the die-off had on the bottom of the ocean, as well as documenting the surface of the water near the cages and shoreline area.

"We will not influence their findings in any way," Gaskill said.

Meanwhile, diving operations have resumed at Northern Harvest Sea Farms. 

They were temporarily shut down after a diver had to be treated for decompression sickness.

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