Mowi Canada seeks to repair damage done by Newfoundland salmon die-off

Published on
October 18, 2019

Mowi Canada is doing everything it can to repair the damage done by a mass die-off of salmon it was farming in Newfoundland, according to company spokesman James Card.

Sustained high water temperatures resulted in the deaths of around 2.6 million Atlantic salmon between late-August and early-September at 10 Northern Harvest farms in southern Newfoundland. Card told SeafoodSource that Mowi, which purchased Northern Harvest last year, is “making every effort” to ensure the clean-up proceeds quickly and effectively, and that no similar incident happens in the future.

“We’re building for the future as though this would be something that could happen every day and planning for that going forward,” he said. “In places where we experienced this event, we will change out all our gear over the course of this winter. We can’t operate in that area knowing what we know about what temperatures can do there. That of course will be a cost, and the clean-up is a significant cost, so it has been an expensive learning experience for us. But that’s not where heads or hearts are. Lots of people are depending on us in these local communities, and we all want to operate at the highest possible caliber – we want to do things the right way and we’re willing to spend to ensure that happens.”

Mowi said the die-off would cost it EUR 5 million (USD 5.5 million), which would be included in its third-quarter results. The loss was insured, the company added. It stands to potentially incur future losses due to the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources of Newfoundland and Labrador suspending the licenses of the farms where the die-off occurred. The department has not yet told Mowi how long the licenses will remain suspended, Card confirmed.

“The suspension is limited to the 10 sites where the mass mortality was experienced. The rationale for the suspension is that we weren’t fast enough to report all our mortalities,” Card said. “We haven’t heard what conditions it will take to restore those licenses, but we will ensure we will meet the conditions of what it will take to restore those licenses once they are provided.”

Card said plans are in the works for Mowi CEO Alf-Helge Aarskog to make a visit to Newfoundland soon, per the request of the provincial government.

“The provincial government is engaged in that regard, but pulling someone out of Norway doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. Likewise, the province wants to make sure they have right people in place to ensure it is a productive visit, so we’re both taking steps to making sure that happens,” Card said.

Card said the clean-up effort was 87 percent complete as of Friday, 11 October, and that standard methods were being used by the company. Extra crew and vessels from across the company’s operations in Atlantic Canada have been called in to help, he added.

“We’re closing in on that work being finished. We’re using processes that we have used many times before and we anticipate the clean-up being finished soon. We have always said the clean-up is subject to weather, and we’re expecting … it might be a mitigating factor that prolongs things a day or two, but we’re aiming to be finished by the end of this week,” he said. 

The incident wiped out half of the 5.4 million fish Northern Harvest had in the water at the beginning of September, Card said. Six sites experienced near-total mortality, and four saw varying degrees of mortality. However, the salmon from the 72 cages with mortalities – out of the company’s total of 166 cages – have been cleaned out, with their fish sent for rendering. Most have been taking to a third-party rendering plant for conversion into fertilizer or animal feed, Card said.

“They’re not being landfilled,” he said.

Large piles of fat washing ashore near the farm site – up to meters deep in some places – is a natural product and “will dissolve over time,” Card said.

“We don’t anticipate that there’s going to be a long-term effect from it, but we don’t want to just state that and walk away. We’re engaging an environmental monitoring group, MAMKA, to go out and see if the organic matter persists in the environment and if it is having any effect. They don’t vet their work through us and they’re reporting their findings publicly. We want to know and we want to give everyone confidence what the impacts are and how they can be addressed,” Card said.

Card also said Mowi is not concerned about potential algal blooms as a result of the die-off and the resulting increase in organic material in the water.

“Generally speaking, algal blooms happen at different times of year, and its water runoff that causes them,” he said. “Suffice it to say, we don’t think this would be something that would cause that.”

In fact, local lobster harvests have risen after similar incidents, which Card said could show an increase in organic material in the water could benefit the local marine environment. He said Mowi is working out the terms of its deal with MAMKA regading the scope of its future work and length of contract.

“That will be announced soon, but they will certainly be working right into 2020,” he said.

Card dismissed what he called “misinformation by anti-aquaculture advocates” that there might have been escapes as a result of the net-pens being weight down, allowing surviving fish to swim out of the top of the cages.

“Our workers have been working tirelessly on clean-up efforts. If there had been escapes, they would have noticed it and reported it. There have not been escapes,” he said.

Card also dismissed any tie between the die-off and two reported cases of infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) that were reported by the company to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in September. The positive ISA tests came from sampling done in July and early August and any fish that had possible exposure to the samples that tested positive for ISA were harvested before the mass mortality occured, Card said.

“And we have not seen any ISA since,” he said. “The two situations are not the same and there shouldn’t be any conflation of them.”

Moving forward, the company is committed to making adjustments of its farming practices in Newfoundland to adjust for the conditions that caused this die-off, Card said. That will include replacing current cages that are between 15 to 20 meters in depth with deeper pens that go down to 25 meters. That will allow the salmon to find colder water without overcrowding, he said. Northern Harvest will also install aeration systems and tubes that circulate oxygen throughout each cage, Card added.

“We didn’t have cause to believe our gear was insufficient, but no farmer in this world is not at the mercy of Mother Nature. The best we can do in that situation is take a look at what we experienced, build to a spec that exceeds what we think is the realistic worst-case scenario,” he said. “

Mowi Canada is also working on improving its processes for communicating with the public more quickly and effectively, Card said.

“We acknowledge that our reporting could have been better,” he said. “This was an unprecedented event and the experience of how we dealt with it is one for us to grow on.”

He also acknowledged the company was not completely prepared for the event.

“Yes, we were surprised,” Card said. “Nothing in the data said we were going to have this kind of experience. But what’s important now is how we respond. We’re trying to respond comprehensively, faster, more efficiently. This has to be a learning experience for us.”

Despite environmental conditions that caused the mass die-off, and the possibility that such events are more likely to occur as a result of climate change, Card said the company is committed to its Newfoundland operations.

“To the local communities here, aquaculture is life. It’s the backbone of the economy. We don’t take that lightly. We want everyone to have every confidence that we’re staying here and will continue operations here in the future,” Card said. “We will continue to invest in our operations and take all their concerns very seriously. We have been reaffirming to them that we’re serious about the long-term success of all of us in the future, and they have been very supportive to date. Hopefully, they are seeing that commitment to the community – that we took the right steps to monitor and repair any damage and try to make it right going forward. We regret the incident but we’re going to make sure we rebuild and make things right for the future.”

Photo courtesy of Northern Harvest Sea Farms

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