Disease ruled out at fish farm site with 'higher than expected' deaths

No disease was detected in salmon sampled from a damaged fish farm in Shelburne harbour but the province says the site experienced a "higher than expected rate of mortality."

The site was damaged last month during a winter storm. On Feb. 15, Cooke Aquaculture reported the damage to the province; two days later it reported possible escapes by some salmon.

During an interview Monday, Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Keith Colwell said the fish deaths are "strictly from the storm, nothing else." He left it to the company to detail the scale of the mortality.

Number of dead fish unknown

The minister said the company reported no other issues with any other pens in the area.

"They've reported everything in a timely manner," said Colwell.

A representative for the company has yet to respond to a list of questions. Last weekend, prior to the government's update, Nell Halse said in an email "there is nothing to update."

Process followed regulations

Colwell said the dead fish would go to a rendering plant where they could be turned into fertilizer or other products, but would not be used for human consumption. There's no reason for concern about the live fish that come from the same pen, he said.

"The company has been harvesting since December on the site and will continue to harvest — it's normal harvest time now — and they would take the fish out very quickly if there is some mortality on the site."

The minister said the process went exactly the way it should as per his department's regulations.

"It does take time to do tests and to evaluate the tests to make sure that there was no diseases present, which was the case," he said. "[It was] only on Friday night late that we had finally completed the tests."

Communication not good enough

But Shannon Arnold, the Ecology Action Centre's marine policy co-ordinator, still has questions and said communication with the communities where these sites are located needs to be better.

"It is just frustrating that updates are only coming after people finally resort to going to the media," she said in an email.

"People were calling and writing daily to the province and DFO reporting escapes and it took 10 days for any response and now a further nine days for another small bit of information about tests — again, only after people were concerned enough to take video of big tubs of dead fish being dumped and sending it to the media."

Kathaleen Milan made the video in question. She and her husband, Ron Neufeld, are both concerned about what they're seeing and the lack of information coming from the department and company. They also found several dead fish washed up on nearby rocks.

"This isn't just like a one off," said Milan, who said she and her husband too often see large amounts of dead fish being harvested from fish farms in the area.

The waste, and what it says about the industry, trouble her, she said.

A need to improve trust

Arnold said if the government really wants to build trust with communities about the industry it "needs to go above and beyond a few paragraphs" in a news release.

"We urge them to be proactive and hold community meetings — not to be afraid to talk to their constituents — to discuss the new regulations, how they are being applied and what is allowed."