SHELBURNE, N.S. — A fish farm that was damaged following severe winter storms last month sustained a “higher than expected” mortality rate, says Nova Scotia’s fisheries minister.
In an interview Monday, Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell said his department doesn’t have the exact number of dead fish at the Cooke Aquaculture site in Shelburne Harbour on the province’s southwestern shore.
Colwell said that figure wouldn’t be available until Cooke finishes harvesting pens in the area. He also said provincial testing had determined that none of the fish died of disease.
“They (Cooke) have been harvesting there since Christmas time and they’ve had no problem up until that big storm came,” said Colwell.
He speculated that it was storm damage that led to the fish kill, but said his department “really didn’t know” at this point what caused the deaths.
“We couldn’t find any scientific reason why they would have died,” said Colwell.
A news release issued Feb. 24 reported the storm damage and the possibility some fish might have escaped as a result, but there was no mention of dead fish by either the government or the company.
At the time, Cooke spokeswoman Nell Halse said one of the connectors to the mooring system failed in the storm, causing a “small possible break” to one of the net pens at the company’s McNutts Island site, just outside Shelburne Harbour.
She said the company was trying to determine if any of the thousands of fish were lost as a result.
Colwell said investigations by the fisheries and environment departments in the aftermath of the initial reports from the company on Feb. 15 and 17 are continuing.
“We can’t see anything yet that wasn’t done properly,” he said.
A retired couple who live near the fish farming operation confirm they witnessed large numbers of dead fish being removed and loaded on large dump trucks from Cooke’s sites at McNutts Island and Jordan Bay.
Ron Neufeld said he and his wife shot video of the operation.
Neufeld said they saw 20 to 30 bins of dead fish taken from the Jordan Bay site and estimate another 50 to 80 were taken from the McNutts Island pens. He said the video was shot Feb. 24 and 25.
He said harvesting boats were also at the sites.
“At the same time at the same site they are taking out the dead fish,” Neufeld said.
Calls seeking comment from Cooke Aquaculture were not returned Monday.
Colwell said it’s not unusual to find dead fish during harvesting.
“There is normally some mortality in cages over time,” he said.
Colwell said the dead fish would be taken to a rendering plant where they would be turned into fertilizer and other products. He said nothing would be used for human consumption.
Shelly Hipson, an advocate for Shelburne Harbour, said many people in the area are wondering what’s going on. Hipson said in addition to the fish kill, there have also been reports of some fish washing ashore in the area.