No dead salmon numbers confirmed; photos not 'very pretty' but not the whole picture: Gerry Byrne

The images of pink liquid flowing from boats are startling, but don't paint the whole picture of the effort to clean up a massive salmon die-off at a farming operation on Newfoundland's south coast, says the province's fisheries minister.

"Nope, it doesn't look very pretty at all, I can tell you that," says Gerry Byrne, who has not visited the site himself.

CBC News visited Fortune Bay last week, capturing underwater footage of the pink effluent. Fish began dying on Sept. 2 as the result of unusually high water temperatures at the Northern Harvest Sea Farms sites, a company owned by aquaculture giant Mowi.

Byrne compared the public reaction to the photographs from Fortune Bay, where Northern Harvest Sea Farms is emptying out its salmon pens, to anti-seal hunt propaganda.

"I've seen some very, very emotive issues when it comes to the seal hunt which do not reflect the realities," he told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

"So I would caution, before anyone draws a conclusion.… Just think through how certain industries have been victimized by the production of images which may be far in excess of what is the truth of what's happening here."

Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC

When challenged by CBC reporter Chris O'Neill-Yates on Twitter on those comments, Byrne responded he was providing his opinion on the pictures. He said he "doesn't condemn the CBC for showing them" but that "science is a better resource for conclusions than photos."

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.

When Byrne was asked about the numbers, he said he did not have the regulatory authority to publicly disclose the salmon deaths, even after the company reported it to the province, but said it could not be more than two million fish, since that was the capacity of the pens.

Sometimes people don't want to hear the actual answer. - Gerry Byrne

The company has hired contract diving companies to assist in the cleanup operation. The salmon is separated from the water in the pens, and the water is then dumped back into the ocean, the company said.

The company said the pink colouring comes from salmon pigment, and it maintains the substance is harmless.

Testing of the fish is already underway, said Byrne, with samples sent off to the Atlantic Veterinarian College on Prince Edward Island. He said there is no danger to the environment.

"There's a set of testing that's done by Fisheries and Land Resources and then the tissue samples are sent to the Atlantic Veterinarian College, as well as an institute within the University of New Brunswick," Byrne said.

"But there's been a lot of personalization around this issue, there's been a lot of like, 'Now's the time to really sort of dig in,' but a lot of these questions can be answered, and have been answered. Sometimes people don't want to hear the actual answer though."

FFAW

Calls for investigation

However, the provincial New Democrats are pushing for more answers, and in a letter called for Byrne to launch an immediate investigation into what they called "this environmental disaster."

NDP MHA James Dinn issued the letter Wednesday morning, asking Byrne to have an investigation carried out by Environment and Climate Change Canada, or an "arm's-length environmental consulting firm" that would be paid for by Mowi and Northern Harvest Sea Farms.

"We want an independent investigation into what happened here, that's taken out of the hands of Minister Byrne and the government. The minister is sounding more and more like a cheerleader for the industry than a person who should be exercising oversight," Dinn told CBC News Wednesday afternoon.

The NDP pointed to the delay in reporting of the massive die-off on the company's part and said there are unanswered questions that need to response if public trust is to be restored.

Dinn said the NDP wants to know the exact timelines of when the problem started, who was notified, the environmental impact, the impact on wild salmon and the impact on fish processors. 

Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC

"Most importantly some recommendations, and until that's done these cages not be restocked," he said.

"We don't even know how many of those fish actually escaped to breed with wild Atlantic salmon. That's a disaster by any standard."  

Byrne said those independent reviews are already underway — pointing to the Atlantic Veterinarian College and University of New Brunswick examining tissue samples — adding that further results will be publicly released by the chief aquaculture veterinarian in a report when it's available.

A spokesperson from the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources confirmed to CBC News that the department is paying for the lab testing.

The provincial government said the chief aquaculture veterinarian has determined that clinical disease was not the cause of the salmon die-off

"The mortality event occurrence is consistent with an environmental cause," the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources told CBC News.

Dinn said that's unsatisfactory, adding he believes the cages were overstocked. 

What's more, Dinn said, he's skeptical over the warm water argument and questions why it was only the Fortune Bay salmon cages affected while others remained unscathed.

"Right now I'm having a hard time trusting the aquaculture industry or the minister," he said.

Garrett Barry/CBC

Greg Malone, the Green Party candidate for Avalon calls the die-off and the pink liquid a toxic mess. He's critical of the provincial government for believing that nothing is wrong.

"This is the government, don't forget, that had to be dragged to court by concerned citizens to do a proper environmental assessment of the big salmon farm they're planning for Placentia," Malone told CBC News. 

"They're enemies of wildlife, really. So much of the Newfoundland wildlife has been destroyed under their watch. Whether it be gold mines, or salmon farms or whatever else, they do not have any respect for the environment. And those days are over."  

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie said Byrne's handling of the situation is not good enough. 

Crosbie said federal and provincial government representatives should have been on site as soon as the problem had become known to them, adding they should be on location right now if they are not already. 

"As much as we might like the industry, we can't rely on them for independent information. That's why we rely on government oversight," he said. 

Crosbie is also calling for an investigation into the die-off, and wants to see results that could help improve salmon aquaculture practices and preventive measures to sustain public confidence in the industry. 

No more than 2 million fish

Meanwhile, Byrne insists the federal government is the body with that regulatory authority.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has said the situation is being monitored.

Environment and Climate Change Canada said it is working with DFO and other partners, including the provincial government, "to ensure the health of Canada's marine environment," and is gathering further information from the south coast and cannot comment further.

While the exact number of dead fish is still unknown, Byrne did say it's impossible to be more than two million salmon, since that is the capacity of the pens.

"There are still live fish in some of the sites," he said.

"The total stocking density of all the sites that were impacted was no greater than two million fish and the number of mortalities is not two million, it is less than that. That number will be revealed when the information is compiled, but you can't report something that you don't know."

Byrne said once the independent review results are available to government, they will be publicly released.

"What I find a little frustrating, but understandable, in this incident is that there is a push for answers before they can necessarily be given," he said.

"I can guarantee when it becomes clear and known, those answers will be given."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador