By Greg Bennett
The Coast Guard
Despite a suspected outbreak of an untreatable fish disease that led to the culling of thousands of salmon in Shelburne Harbour, Cooke Aquaculture officials say the company’s expansion plans in Nova Scotia remain unchanged.
Company spokesperson Nell Halse admits it was bad news for the company when positive indications for infectious salmon anemia were found during routine testing of fish from their Shelburne operation. Halse noted though that the loss of two cages of salmon was a small percentage of their production in Nova Scotia.
Officials at provincial labs in Truro were conducting routine tests on farmed salmon on Feb. 9 when suspected cases of ISA were found. A little more than a week later, on Friday morning, Feb. 17 trucks filled with salmon left Shelburne wharf so the fish could be culled and disposed of.
While unfortunate, Halse says the company expects to deal with diseases and parasites at fish farms from time to time.
“Sometimes this happens,” she said, noting that her and other aquaculture companies have dealt successfully with ISA in New Brunswick. “There’s always a risk …but we have all kinds of good measures to prevent them.”
Under federal law suspected cases of the disease have to be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency within 24 hours.
The Shelburne operation has since been quarantined by the CFIA which is waiting on test results from federal labs in Moncton to confirm if the fish were infected with ISA.
While harmful to salmon, ISA does not affect people.
Provincial officials have commended the company for its quick actions to deal with the situation though the suspected disease and resulting salmon cull has led to many questions and renewed criticisms about the fish farming industry in Nova Scotia.
During a Legislative Committee meeting last week about the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture’s coastal strategy Progressive Conservatives complained that the NDP was shutting down debate on the issue when the committee chair would not allow questions related to the aquaculture industry.
The Friends of Port Mouton Bay also allege a fish farm polluted the bay and is killing lobster larvae while groups in Shelburne and Eastern Shore have expressed concerns about applications for new leases.
While Halse admits not everyone in the province believes in fish farming, she said the company was appreciative of the overall support they have received from community members in the Shelburne and Digby areas.
The company plans to have more than 300 people working in a major processing plant in the Shelburne area and has plans to hire dozens for a hatchery and net repair facility in the Digby County area to support its growing open ocean salmon farms in Nova Scotia.
She said a request for a delay in an application for a third fish farm site in Shelburne Harbour had been made in December and was in no way related the suspected ISA outbreak. Applications for fish farm sites in Jordan Bay are continuing.
Asked if people should be concerned about the stability of the industry, Halse noted that Cooke’s had endured many challenges over its 25-year history including low prices, parasites, ISA outbreaks and more and has prospered.
“That in itself is something,” she said.