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Knew about ISA virus three weeks ago

FROM SOUTH COAST TODAY – 24FEB2010 – by TIMOTHY GILLESPIE:

Everyone is entitled to keep secrets, even provincial ministers. But, when keeping the secret means betraying the trust of a small town, the citizens who elected him and whose interests he has pledged to serve, and an entire province, it is not a good thing.

Nova Scotia Fisheries & Aquaculture minister Sterling Belliveau – and the multinational aquaculture giant Cooke Aquaculture – knew three weeks ago that a dangerous and deadly virus was likely incubating in the pristine harbour in historic Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

For reasons he won’t disclose, Belliveau did not warn the unsuspecting citizens of Shelburne, the Town, the Municipality, the fishermen who rely on the unpolluted waters of the harbor, or anyone else, for that matter.

If the media had not discovered the suspected outbreak of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA), and reported it on February 17 as an urgent, breaking story, Belliveau might still be ensconced in his office in Halifax, surrounded by deputies, aides and a dutiful press corps, keeping his ugly secret to himself and his corporate "partners".

Belliveau’s staff admits to knowing about the dangerous virus – which has decimated salmon farms and farming industries in New Brunswick, Norway and Chile – since February 2. Belliveau won’t disclose when he first knew, saying he “doesn’t recall.” In the three weeks that Belliveau’s staff has known about the virus, they have not issued one news or information alert to citizens or media.

The web site for the aquaculture division of the department makes no mention of ISA virus infection, or the threat it poses to Shelburne Harbour, to the 350 jobs promised to this small town or to the aquaculture industry as a whole. Not one word.

It’s like it hasn’t happened.

When Belliveau’s staff wants to let people know of a $700,000 gift to the aquaculture industry for promotional schemes, or an “aquaculture festival” in small town in Nova Scotia, my mailbox is filled with news alerts and calls to the five-person publicity team are handled with prompt dispatch. In the days following the news “leak” about the infection, I made no fewer than 13 calls and emails to PR and other Department staff in order to get some questions answered – without one response,

When I finally tracked down Belliveau’s PR chief on his cell phone five days later, I was honoured with a 15-minute, crazed and hysterical rant about how “unprofessional” it was for me to try to reach actual staff people who had direct knowledge about the virus and its effects and the Department’s efforts to understand what the potential risks were. My bad.

Sterling Belliveau knows where the ISA infection occurred, but he won’t say. He knows when he first learned of the infection, but he won’t say. His staff knows what disease reporting requirements are in place, but they won’t say. How’s that for a government which prides itself on transparency?

The silence and secrecy might just be a case of ministerial and/or departmental incompetency. It is a perfect PR textbook case of “how not to handle a crisis”. But it might be something more.

The ISA is almost certainly from the fish cages near McNutt’s Island, which houses 860,000 fish before the recent slaughter of 100,000 or so due to ISA concerns. Up to 300,000 of those fish were moved suddenly and inexplicitly last April from another Cooke site in the inner harbor. It is likely that those fish were from the same batch of smolts which were used to stock the new sites in St. Mary’s Bay . The people there are now reporting abnormal incidences of boxes of dead or dying fish showing up on wharves in that area.

One scenario posed here – and a possible reason for Belliveau and staff to come clean on the ISA mess – is that ISA might have already been in the fish transferred to  McNutt’s and the same ISA might have been in smolts shipped to St.Mary’s Bay – or other sites in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or Newfoundland, where Cooke has been growing in leaps and bounds. If so, we would have a genuine regional crisis.

If not, then it’s just a scare. Either way, minister Belliveau, his staff and Cooke Aquaculture should come clean now with the citizens of Shelburne, St. Mary’s Bay and Nova Scotia.

Just hours before the massive Deepwater Horizon explosion struck, acting as the government’s” front man” in the legislative debates for their push to drill for oil and gas on Georges Bank, Sterling Belliveau stood up in a legislative committee hearing and crowed that “modern drilling technology is so safe, that it would virtually impossible to have a blow-out.”

Thursday, also at Province House, Belliveau said,” "I know that there is certain policies in place dealing with these infectious diseases and I’m confident that, as we move forward, the proper policies will be implemented." Now I know we should be worried.

As for transparency, one thing seems clear to me and I suspect to others. As nice a guy as he seems to be, when it comes to plumbing the depths of a critical issue facing his constituents and all of Nova Scotia, Sterling Belliveau is well out of his depth.

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