Aquaculture minister criticizes fish farm operator, defends his department

Aquaculture Minister Keith Colwell says his department wasn't hiding anything when it was slow to publicly report a large salmon kill at a Shelburne harbour fish farm, even as he chastised the site's owner Thursday for poor communication.

Initial reports out of Shelburne were about possible fish escapes, but last week Colwell's department said the Cooke Aquaculture site experienced a "higher than expected rate of mortality."

An investigation found no disease and deemed the deaths storm-related, he said.

Didn't realize how many fish died

Even before the department confirmed the deaths, community members were sharing photos and video of what appeared to be large volumes of dead fish being loaded into trucks.

Colwell said he initially didn't think it was relevant to mention the dead fish, as there are always some at aquaculture sites.

"We didn't realize how many fish were [dead]."

He said fish vets were examining the site and he wanted to wait for the result of those tests before publicizing the mortality.

"The same organizations that say we're covering up say the same thing every time. Everything that we have done has been open," he told reporters.

"As we get information, you're getting the information and we'll keep you informed as we get it."

Cooke defends communications

Cooke first notified the government, as it's required to, last month about storm-related damage to a pen and then again two days later when it realized some fish escaped from the site.

But the company has not publicly stated how many fish from the site have died. Cooke employees have been harvesting since December at the site where, Colwell estimated, there were about 800,000 fish in total.

Company spokeswoman Nell Halse said in an email Thursday that the company sent a full report and update to the community through a community liaison committee last week.

Hard on employees

Harvesting, which will be complete next week, has so far showed they are short 60 fish, said Halse. She said the company does not release mortality numbers for proprietary business reasons, but the dead fish "represented a small percentage of each farm."

"This has been very hard on our employees," she said. "They spend two years feeding and caring for these fish and it is always devastating to have to remove beautiful, healthy fish that died in a storm.‎

"The added scrutiny by a few individuals and huge telephoto lenses who post their photos on the internet … is added stress — something they do not deserve."

A requirement to report

Colwell said his department "has taken the unusual step" of reminding Cooke they have to communicate with the community.

"I have a concern that they haven't gone to the public enough."

The company is required by regulation to report mass mortalities to the department, but Colwell said he doesn't have an accurate number yet.

"They didn't tell us a ballpark number that I have seen yet."

Dead fish from aquaculture sites go to rendering plants and are not used for human consumption, Colwell has said.