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Abandonment issues?

In a surprising announcement on Friday by the federal government, Cooke Aquaculture subsidiary Kelly Cove Salmon (KCS) has thrown in the towel in the controversial application for a aquaculture license within yards of McNutts Island in Shelburne Harbour, following Cooke’s admission that there is suspicion of the incurable and destructive Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) virus at one of the firm’s several industrial farm sites in the harbour. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has placed a quarantine on the suspect site, but Cooke, a New-Brunswick-based, $500 million, multinational corporation, has refused to disclose the location of the deadly virus. At its maximum capacity, the farm would have produced a $70 million harvest of “eco trust” salmon.

In a news release Sunday from Mayday Shelburne County and Friends of Shelburne Harbour, it was disclosed that the federal employee overseeing the environmental review for three mega-sites being proposed by Cooke told Mayday that “KCS has confirmed that they are no longer pursuing site 1357 (Middle Head)”, near the eastern shore of McNutt’s Island and 2.5 kilometers of another large site with a capacity of one million fish.  Uncharacteristic of a company known for its aggressive public relations programme, Cooke has given no public notice of the decision and it does not appear on their web site. Cooke PR vice president Nell Halse declined to answer any questions from SCT, saying in an email that she would not elaborate on Cooke’s plans not to pursue the lease ‘at this time’ , except to say "we are abandoning our plans."   This site would also have produced $70 million per harvest at full capacity.

No answers to simple questions
On Friday, Halse also declined to answer questions from SCT about the circumstances which prompted Cooke’s decision to not pursue the lease, or what date KCS became aware that there might be a fish health problem at the site, or the the number of fish removed from Shelburne Harbour between Feb 10 and 17.

Although neither Cooke, Nova Scotia Department of Aquaculture or CFIA would disclose where the potential ISA infection took place, it is presumed to be at the current site abutting McNutts Island (McNutt’s Island site #1345,), approximately 4 kilometers from Government Point on the Sandy Point coastline and containing 860,000 fish, with a wholesale market value market of approximately $45 million.

Distance standards ignored
In order to avoid disease contagion, federal standards set by DFO require a minimum of three kilometers between farm sites, but the the Middle Head site, according to documents filed by Cooke/KCS, was less than one half that distance. If the McNutt’s Island site was the source of ISA contagion, the Middle Head site with a planned one million fish, could have been extremely vulnerable to ISA virus, which almost destroyed the massive Chilean farmed salmon industry in 2007, with job losses exceeding 10,000 and millions of fish being slaughtered.

“The prospect that Cooke was being allowed by the federal government and Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (NSDFA) to place two large farms so closely together has been a concern of ours for more than a year,” said Sindy Horncastle, spokesperson for Mayday – Shelburne County in a news release. “We know that others have also written to NSDFA Minister Sterling Belliveau with warnings, all of which have been completely ignored.”

“We wonder if  Cooke’s sudden cancelation of their application for the proposed Middle Head site has to do with the possibility that ISA exists in McNutt’s Island waters, we hope that Cooke explains the reasoning for their decision to no longer pursue the proposal,” said Marian Specter, also with Friends of Shelburne Harbour.

Jordan Bay sites also challenged
The Middle Head site was one of three large farms being proposed by Cooke, the other two also being sited very close to each other in Jordan Bay. Mayday and others have been raising the alarm with NSDFA  and minister Sterling Belliveau that scientific studies indicate that the estuarial nature of the bay would deposit tons of fish farm fecal matter – and possibly pesticides – on what lobster fishermen describe as "a very  productive lobster nursery."

Herschel Specter, with Friends of Shelburne Harbour says in the release that common sense, foresight, and acknowledgement that similar outbreaks have occurred in other high-density fish locations could have predicted the outcome with ISA in Shelburne harbour.

“The events of the past few days raise many concerns among those of us who are committed to understanding the true implications of industrial fish farming in the bays and harbours of Nova Scotia’s coast,” added Specter, “and considering the latest news, the known science, the laying of federal charges for alleged illegal pesticide use and other cautionary signals, we think the public is entitled to learn from Cooke, NSDFA, DFO and CFIA the answers to many important questions.”

Cooke has some ‘splainin’ to do
Some of the questions Specter posed included the location and timing of the possible ISA outbreak, when and by who was testing done, were any of the slaughtered fish transferred from another site in Shelburne Harbour and when, is there ISA in the water near the affected site now, why was Cooke allowed to propose a large farm so close to another farm, will the ISA outbreak and new site cancelation affect the promised processing plant employing 350 local workers.

"There is a huge price on this “debacle” added Horncastle. “There is a social price and a big environmental cost. Using our taxpayer dollars to support an industry with a history of problems is completely unacceptable.”

On Friday, Roland Cusack, Nova Scotia’s chief veterinarian for aquatic animal health, appeared to go to great lengths with media outlets to minimize the possible negative effects of ISA in Nova Scotia, including telling CBC that, although untreatable,  "it usually doesn’t cause really catastrophic large-scale losses."

"Given the terrible consequences of ISA in Chile, Norway and New Brunswick, including the wholesale slaughter of millions of fish worth over a billion dollars, for him to say that is completely irresponsible, " said one harbour side resident who asked not to be named . "If he represents the government policy or position, we are in real trouble."

Sindy Horncastle added, “The same conditions that exist in Shelburne Harbour exist in other harbours and bays where NSDFA is allowing and promoting the expansion of industrial open-pen salmon aquaculture.

ISA outbreaks have occurred in New Brunswick, Norway, Scotland and Chile. British Columbia had a suspected ISA occurance in late 2011 and further tests are being made there. In January, 2012, a Cooke subsidiary in Chile was forced to slaughter up to 300,000 salmon in the first ISA outbreak there since the devastation of 2007.

Five-year Job loss
If the ISA virus is found to be prevalent in the diseased fish, it is unlikely that the site would be stocked again soon and would effectively be “moth-balled.”  Salmon farms produce a full crop of fish every two years. On that basis, according to Cooke executives, the ISA-infected site and the Middle Head site account for at least one third of the minimum three million fish needed for the processing plant and hatchery planned for Shelburne and Digby. “Through carelessness or through normal biological circumstances, this effectively puts an end to the 350 jobs Cooke had been promising the struggling communities in those two towns,” says an economic development specialist in the region.  “It looks now like it will be five years or more before will ten

The Municipality of Shelburne, Town of Shelburne and Chamber of Commerce in the area had been strong proponents of Cooke’s plans. The mayor and warden and many of the councilors and business people became very vocal about their support after taking and expense-paid trip in Cooke’s private plane to visit their facilities and offices in New Brunswick. Two hours before a presentation by the Friends of Shelburne Harbour regarding the exercise of caution in having large, industrial salmon farms populate the bays and harbours in the county, and prior to any public discussion of the issue, the Municipality issued a broadly-distributed news release promoting Cooke’s plans and stating that citizens in the are were fully in favour of the proposal.

Tainted lobster scare?

Many lobster fishermen in the area have been been  adamantly opposed to the new, massive farms, telling Sterling Belliveau at fishermen’s meetings that the science they have seen suggests that fecal waste and possible pesticide residue could cripple their livelihoods. They have repeated asked Belliveau for science reports they believe his department holds and have been denied. The most recent request was met with a $3000 bill from Belliveau’s staff for them to even look for the reports. The worry increased recently when CEO Glenn Cooke and two senior executives were charged by the federal government with 33 counts each of allegedly dumping the highly-toxic pesticide cypermethrin in waters near lobster pounds, resulting in the death of thousands of adult lobsters ready for market. That case, which could result in multi-million dollar fines and serious prison time, has yet to go to trial. Cooke was also recently fine $40,000 for the illegal use of another pesticide.

One lobster fisherman told SCT that the industry in and around Shelburne is "hanging on by a thread." "We’ve been really worried about the low lobster prices and then we were worried about how lobster buyers would react to buying lobsters with possible pesticide residue," he said. "But if word gets out that the waters around our traps are infected with one of the scariest marine viruses, that could just be the end of us." When reminded that ISA is not known to be transferred to humans, the fisherman was not comforted. "That’s what they said about bird flu and mad cow and all of the other diseases that have ruined the lives of thousands of farmers and others. Who in their right mind is going to eat something that’s been swimming in water that might contain something called infectious anemia? Just think about it."

"We’re not just a bunch of dumb fishermen, you know," the fisherman added. "We read the news and we’re quite aware of how this ISA thing is suspected in BC, has been in Cooke farms in New Brunswick before and is now active in several Cooke farms in Chile. We are worried."     

More than nine telephone calls to staff at the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture Friday went unreturned.