Salmon deaths dominate question period as House of Assembly reopens

The provincial legislature began its fall session Monday, with a grilling about the government response to a mass salmon die-off on the south coast causing the most noise.

Heated back-and-forth over mass die-off on south coast

Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne addresses reporters after Monday's first fall session of the provincial legislature. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

The Liberal government's response to the recent deaths of millions of salmon on Newfoundland's south coast was the centre of the provincial political agenda Monday as the House of Assembly opened for its fall sitting.

Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne and Cape St. Francis MHA Kevin Parsons, the fisheries critic for the PCs, sparred in a fiery back-and-forth as Francis asked for timelines on the government response's, and why the Liberals stayed silent about the fish kill.

Starting at the end of August, 2.6 million fish died in Northern Harvest Sea Farms sea cages, which the company attributed to warmer-than-usual water temperatures. The incident was reported to the province Sept. 3, but only made public via the Food, Fisheries & Allied Workers union three weeks later, with the full death tally revealed Oct. 11.

On Monday, Parsons pressed Byrne for timelines on government action, and what it did Sept. 3.

Byrne said veterinarians and other technical staff were deployed and on site within 24 hours to make their own assessments of the cause of the deaths, although he said that process was hampered when the remnants of Hurricane Dorian hit on Sept. 8.

Parsons also criticized Byrne for a lack of transparency on the deaths, to which Byrne said that as there was an active investigation into the deaths, privacy legislation gave him leeway to stay quiet.

"Discretion can indeed be used, and that is good practice," said Byrne, before raising his voice to criticize the PC party's lack of disclosure over four million salmon deaths from 2012 to 2014.

A residue believed to be salmon fat still coated beaches and coves along the south coast in late October, six weeks after the die-off was first reported. (Submitted)

Mowi CEO en route

Parsons called Premier Dwight Ball into the fish fray, asking Ball if he had confidence in Byrne, who Parsons said "has bungled this like you wouldn't believe."

Ball backed up Byrne, saying "if I didn't have confidence in this minister, he wouldn't be here."

He repeated that sentiment to reporters in the post-question period scrum, where Ball also disclosed that the CEO of Mowi, the parent company of Northern Harvest Sea Farms, would be in the province near the end of the week and would meet with government.

Ball said that meeting comes after Byrne wrote and requested it. Ball also defended Byrne's track record of being unaware of the exact number of dead fish, saying "we were not happy" with communication.

"[Mowi] were required to provide proactive disclosure about events. They failed to do that," Byrne told reporters, noting that after the disclosure, the province suspended 10 of the company's licences.

Byrne said that meeting would likely take place Thursday afternoon, and would include talk about the company's future in the province and its following of legislation or lack thereof.

Byrne said its licences would not be returned until the "full facts" of the event are known.

Premier Dwight Ball defended Byrne, both during question period and in a scrum with reporters afterward. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Sheshatshiu crisis, Speaker named

The suicide crisis in Sheshatshiu also came up during Monday's question period, as Torngat Mountains PC MHA Lela Evans asked for provincial government counselling resources, allocated to help during the crisis, be stationed there permanently.

Ball said "conversations are happening every day" between the government and Innu Nation leadership over the crisis, which Chief Eugene Hart declared Oct. 29 after, he said, 10 young people attempted to take their own lives.

"It shouldn't take a crisis or fatalities to spur such action," said Evans.

Health Minister John Haggie responded that the province is trying to craft an action plan that involves "a culturally appropriate system" designed for the Innu.

Monday's first order of business at the House of Assembly was to name St. George's-Humber MHA Scott Reid Speaker of the House. He was elected by secret ballot in a race against Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper.

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