Diver airlifted from salmon cleanup site in Fortune Bay, stop-work order issued

A stop-work order has been issued on diving operations at the salmon farm cleanup site on Newfoundland's south coast after one diver had to be airlifted from Botwood to St. John's.

Service NL says dive work halted until more information available

Two men take handheld nets to the water to pick out matter from the ocean surface during cleanup operations last week. Meanwhile, the Eastern Pride fishing vessel, which has been hired for cleanup duties, pours pink liquid into the sea. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

A stop-work order has been issued on diving operations at the salmon farm cleanup site on Newfoundland's south coast after a diver had to be airlifted from Botwood to St. John's.

The diver was working deep inside one of the dead salmon pens in Fortune Bay on Saturday and rose too quickly, apparently suffering decompression sickness, which is also known as the bends.

Northern Harvest Sea Farms hired several dive teams to empty its open-net pens, following a massive fish die-off that left thousands of pounds of salmon to rot.

In a statement Monday morning, a spokesman for Northern Harvest Sea Farms said the divers are employed by third-party companies, and one of those companies reported an incident requiring occupational health and safety to get involved.

Using an underwater camera, CBC News was able to get a closer look at the white substance that has flooded the ocean surface near the cleaning site. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The suspension of dive operations is a serious blow to ongoing cleanup efforts, but the company insists its "cleanup activity can continue despite dive activity being temporarily stopped."

Service NL said the stop-work order was issued over the weekend "until more information becomes available."

The stop-work order was issued to Northern Harvest, as principal contractor at the site, Service NL said, and another order was issued to Strickland Diving for dive operations at all sites.

How much dead salmon?

CBC News has learned that some divers are wearing hazmat suits, because the decomposing fish — which is referred to by divers as "salmon butter" — ruins their diving suits.

Information circulated to dive teams from Nothern Harvest Sea Farms indicates there are dead fish in 72 pens.

Employees have been warned that there could be 1.8 million dead salmon, with each estimated to weigh about 10 pounds (about 4.5 kilograms). That means a potential 18 million pounds of rotting salmon to clean up, or about 9,000 tons.

Northern Harvest Sea Farms refuses to discuss specific numbers and won't confirm how many fish it had in the ocean before they started dying.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says it is now monitoring the situation. 

As of Monday morning, occupational health and safety officers remain on site, Service NL confirmed, to conduct the ongoing investigation.

Environment Canada: 'Incident is still developing'

CBC News emailed Environment Canada on Thursday asking if the department had done any monitoring in the area regarding the discharge from the dead fish.

In a statement provided Monday afternoon — four days after the request — a spokesperson for Environment Canada said it is aware of the situation and gathering information, but "as this incident is still developing [the department] cannot provide additional comment at this time."

The operation is owned by aquaculture giant Mowi, which has been cleaning out its salmon farming equipment since early September.

The company said salmon in several pens died after a period of unusually warm water caused low oxygen levels.

CBC has asked the company for comment.

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