Nfld. & Labrador

Aquaculture defenders point to good-news stories and silver linings after salmon die-off

A small-town mayor and an industry association head are defending the aquaculture industry amid a massive salmon die-off in Fortune Bay.

Industry brings valuable employment to rural Newfoundland and provides sustainable protein: association head

Mark Lane, executive director of the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industries Association, says negative public reaction to events like last month's die-off is unique to the aquaculture industry. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

With a cleanup operation on hold after a massive salmon-die off in Fortune Bay, defenders of the aquaculture industry are pointing to good-news stories from the sector and its potential for the province.

Aquaculture is a source of sustainable protein, something the world is expected to be millions of tonnes short on by 2050, says Mark Lane, executive director of the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association.

"Seventy per cent of the world's surface is water," Lane told The St. John's Morning Show. "We need to use it to address food concerns, or food sustainability and food security all around the world."

Lane spoke from Rome, where he is representing Canada at United Nations Fisheries and Agriculture Organization and International Salmon Farmers Association meetings.

A stop-work order was issued on the weekend on the cleanup operation underway at a salmon farm on Newfoundland's south coast after a diver developed decompression sickness. Potentially millions of pounds of farmed salmon died at the aquaculture site after a period of warmer-than-usual waters in September.

The massive die-off is devastating, said Lane, who said negative public reaction to the situation is unique to aquaculture farming.

"If the same situation was a farmer of beef or a wheat farmer [who] had a massive crop devastation due to drought, people would be feeling empathy and sympathy for these people," he said.

Other farming industries are also at risk of one-off environmental events having a disastrous impact, said Lane.

"This is no different than any other farming activity anywhere else on the planet."

'Thirty families depend on it'

Lane pointed to the value of aquaculture for coastal communities in the province as one reason for the industry's importance.

"It's providing long-term meaningful jobs to hardworking Newfoundland and Labrador communities."

According to the provincial government, the aquaculture industry was worth about $200 million to the Newfoundland and Labrador economy in 2013, with significant growth over the past two decades. NAIA pegs the value of farmed salmon production in the province at $263 million in 2016. Globally, aquaculture represents nearly half of the world's total fish production, according to the United Nations.

Pink liquid pours over the side of the Eastern Pride, which has been hired for the cleanup at the Northern Harvest Sea Farms aquaculture pens in Fortune Bay, last week. A stop-work order has been issued on the cleanup. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

In Burgeo, it's not the fish farming but the salmon die-off that is providing an economic bright spot. The local fish plant is doubling its staffing to 30 employees in order to process the salmon being cleaned up at the facility. That likely means the difference between leaving town for work and staying for those families, Burgeo Mayor George Reid told Newfoundland Morning.

"Thirty families depend on it," Reid said of the work at the plant, which is expected to be enough over the next couple of months that employees will qualify for employment insurance. 

With no major employers in Burgeo other than the school and the hospital, the unexpected boost in local employment is a good-news story for his town even as it's terrible news for Fortune Bay, he acknowledged.

"Other than that, people gotta leave," he said of local employment prospects.

Concerns about impact

But Reid also pointed to the concerns people have about the potential environmental impact of the die-off, which means thousands of pounds of fish are decomposing in Fortune Bay.

The fish plant has been in Burgeo for as long as the 76-year-old mayor can remember, but he said he'd never smelled anything like the dead salmon arriving for processing from the cleanup.

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 last month because of high water temperatures, says Northern Harvest Sea Farms. (Northern Harvest Sea Farms)

"It's the worst smell I've smelled," he said.

"This stuff smelled so bad you could almost taste it."

The die-off began on Sept. 2 but it was nearly three weeks before the situation made the news. The company has said they provided the proper notifications to the government, their workers, the union, and municipal and Indigenous leaders. New provincial policies for the aquaculture industry announced in late September would require earlier public notification in the case of future incidents.

Lane said that much of the criticism of aquaculture in Newfoundland and Labrador following the die-off isn't based on fact. "There's not a lot of fact-checking in today's world, unfortunately," he said.

This is no different than any other farming activity anywhere else on the planet.- Mark Lane

The colleagues he's speaking with in Rome — from Norway, Faroe Islands, Chile, Scotland — share his concerns about public misconceptions about their industry, he said, and his desire to promote responsible sea farming that relieves pressure on wild fish stocks.

Lane accused groups like the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union, which has raised concerns about the potential effect of the die-off on fish stocks, of using aquaculture as a "political football." He also criticized the Liberal party, which promised during the ongoing election campaign to end open-pen salmon farming in B.C.

Meanwhile, the work stoppage ordered by Service NL remains in place in Fortune Bay. Northern Harvest Sea Farms, which owns the aquaculture site, said in a statement Monday that cleanup activities will continue in other ways while divers are kept from the pens, 

The company will not confirm the number of fish in the ocean before the die-off, or the number suspected to have died. Environment Canada said in a Monday statement that it was aware of the situation, but would not provide additional comment.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and CBC Newfoundland Morning

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