Nova Scotia

N.B. seafood giant vows change after hidden camera shows 'unacceptable' treatment of salmon

A video has been released by a Washington, D.C.-based animal rights organization showing salmon being smashed against posts, stomped on and discarded at a Cooke Seafood hatchery in Maine.

Video from Cooke Seafood hatchery in Maine shows salmon being smashed and stomped

A fish that appears to be affected by a type of fungus is shown in a hidden-camera video recorded at a Maine hatchery and posted to YouTube by animal rights group Compassion Over Killing. (Compassion Over Killing)

The CEO of New Brunswick-based Cooke Seafood is apologizing following a hidden-camera exposé of what the fish farming giant admits were "unacceptable" incidents at its salmon hatchery in Bingham, Maine.

The 4:41-minute video released Monday by Washington, D.C.-based animal rights organization Compassion Over Killing shows salmon being smashed against posts, stomped on and discarded. It also shows what the group says are deformed and diseased salmon at the hatchery.

The hatchery is part of Cooke's global salmon farming empire, which includes facilities and offices on four continents. Cooke bills itself as the world's largest privately held family-owned seafood company, employs around 9,000 people and has ambitious expansion plans.

"I am disappointed and deeply saddened by what I saw today," company CEO Glenn Cooke said in a statement released Monday.

Compassion Over Killing bills the video as an inside look at the "cruel and unnatural world of salmon aquaculture." The video was shot by one of the group's members who worked at the facility from January to April 2019.

The video claims fish are suffering from fungal infections and spinal deformities at the hatchery and are improperly anesthetized prior to being vaccinated.

Workers, their faces blurred, also provide commentary. One, holding a damaged salmon, says: "Fungus ate away his face."

Another still from video posted by animal rights group Compassion Over Killing shows a worker at a Cooke Seafood hatchery in Bingham, Maine, stomping on a fish. (Compassion Over Killing)

The group complained to the State of Maine about conditions at the hatchery. The state's Department of Agriculture confirmed Monday it is investigating a complaint related to activities at the facility.

"Based on information received from the department, and after reviewing the footage issued today by the activist veganism organization, it appears that unacceptable fish handling incidents have occurred at the Bingham hatchery," Cooke said in his statement.

Cooke said in a statement he only saw the video upon its release.

"I am very sorry that this has happened," he said. "We are thoroughly reviewing the footage and we are working closely with the Maine Department of Agriculture to review and ensure all our practices are within compliance. We are speaking with all our employees, and we will institute a rigorous re-training program at our Maine facility."

Cooke said company officials met with the Maine Department of Agriculture at the hatchery on Sept. 17 to discuss the complaint.

He said the company had no opportunity to view the video until it was released and does not know how it was obtained.

In an interview with CBC's Maritime Noon on Tuesday, Joel Richardson, Cooke Seafood's vice-president of public relations, reiterated Cooke's statement.

"The Cooke family and Glenn have made it completely clear to all of our employees this is totally unacceptable and it does not reflect the state of the industry in any of our other operations," said Richardson.

Richardson said Cooke is open to third-party auditing at the facility.

In this still from the video, an unidentified worker hits a live fish against a tank. (Compassion Over Killing)

Compassion Over Killing said its undercover investigation exposed "rampant cruelty" at the Maine facility.

"Our investigations are truly the only way for the public to see what's actually happening behind those closed doors," said Mike Wolf, director of investigations for the group.

"I just feel that these investigations give the consumer the look, the actual information that they need, and helps them make more informed decisions about what they're eating."

He says he does not buy Glenn Cooke's promise to improve conditions at the hatchery.

"The owners of facilities like Cooke, they always know what's happening. They know what's going on," Wolf said. "These places have millions of animals on site. There is no way that they can have workers adequately there performing the duties and provide the environment that the animals need."

Richardson said Compassion Over Killing "is actually a plant-based investment organization" involved with "fake seafood products."

"They are not being upfront with the public," he told Maritime Noon.

Wolf told CBC News in a follow-up email that Compassion Over Killing promotes "plant-based eating as a way to build a kinder world, and in doing so, we promote plant-based food companies.

"But, we do not have any ties to them outside of that." 

Cooke Seafood operates numerous salmon farms in Atlantic  Canada and is currently seeking regulatory approval for a major expansion in Liverpool Bay, N.S. 

The private company has 2,000 employees in New Brunswick and also directly employs 205 people in Nova Scotia, where it has a feed mill and operates fish farms between the outskirts of Halifax and Digby. 

Earlier this year, Glenn Cooke said approval of Liverpool Bay was a key to reviving plans to build a processing plant in the province.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

With files from Maritime Noon

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