Newfoundland salmon farmer: ISA contained on eve of sale to Marine Harvest
By Jason Huffman April 4, 2018 18:45 BST
A combination of Canadian government documents and satellite imagery suggest Northern Harvest Sea Farms' recent discovery of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) at one of its salmon facilities on the coast of Newfoundland is just the exposed point of a much larger outbreak for the St. George, New Brunswick-based company on the verge of its acquisition by Marine Harvest.
But Larry Ingalls, Northern Harvest's CEO, says otherwise.
"There has been multiple testing [for ISA] done on all farms over the past 60 days and all results are negative," Ingalls told Undercurrent News in a brief email sent Wednesday morning.
The message was the first response by Northern Harvest to multiple calls and emails after the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Fisheries and Land Resources (DFLR), on Friday, confirmed that ISA was detected at the company's Spyglass Cove farm, near the town of Pool’s Cove.
A review by Undercurrent of DFLR records showed the nearly 50-acre site, with 15 net pens capable of holding a million salmon, likely received four transfers of smolts from three different hatcheries in 2017. One shipment from Northern Harvest supplier Dartek Hatchery, in Nova Scotia, was scheduled between Oct. 16 and Nov. 30.
That's important because, as Undercurrent reported in early March, at least 500,000 young salmon had to be culled at the Dartek plant after ISA was detected there, as well as another 100,000 to 200,000 at another hatchery that had accepted a transfer from Dartek.
The common thread means Dartek could've been the source of Spyglass’s ISA contamination, which is potentially bad news for at least three other Northern Harvest farms off the coast of Newfoundland that had permits to take transfers from the hatchery in 2017. Each is capable of holding about 1m fish, based on government records and satellite imagery.
One site, McGrath Cove South, had a permit to take smolts from Dartek during the same 45-day time period as Spyglass and is located just six miles from the contaminated site.
But ISA was found in only the four pens at Spyglass Cove that received fish from Dartek, Ingalls said Wednesday. He clarified further that only 10 of the pens at the site were in use.
"All fish on this site were immediately culled in mid-March," he said, adding: "There are no other fish from this group anywhere in our system or inventory."
Also, despite the permit, McGrath Cove South has never received fish from Dartek, he said.
A close concentration of farms
Northern Harvest's case of ISA was in an apparently vulnerable geographic spot for the company, based on satellite imagery.
The Spyglass Cove farm is located only about 2,000 feet from Cinq Cove, another facility owned by Northern Harvest, and that facility is about 2,000 feet from Tilt Point, yet a third Northern Harvest farm. All three farms, which share Cinq Island Bay, are roughly the same size and, according to recent transfer records, remain active.
In fact, Northern Harvest maintains at least seven recently stocked salmon farms in clumps within a roughly six-mile radius of its Spyglass Cove site, the combination of records and satellite imagery shows.
Such a close concentration of farms puts them all at greater risk of contamination, one long-time salmon farming professional told Undercurrent. As a rule of thumb, the source, who requested anonymity, said there should be at least 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) between facilities.
Ian Bricknell, the founding director of the Aquaculture Research Institute at the University of Maine, in Orono, also expressed concern over maintaining salmon farms in close proximity. He said it likely means the government will want to test each one extensively for ISA.
But proximity isn’t the only thing to consider in such circumstances, Bricknell added. Tidal behavior also can be a factor. Water movement is "usually in the order of several miles or kilometers", he said.
Bricknell has seen his share of ISA outbreaks. Prior to moving to Maine in 2007, he ran the immunological diagnostics program for the Fisheries Research Services Marine Laboratory, in Aberdeen, Scotland, for 18 years.
Green dots indicate Northern Harvest open net-pen sites, while Spyglass Cove, with confirmed ISA, is in red. Note the close distances between sites.
Likewise, Larry Hammell, a professor of aquatic epidemiology at Canada's Prince Edward Island University, agreed that a 2,000 feet distance between salmon farms is "extreme" but said it's possible that water currents could behave in such a way that the facilities could be managed safely. Other factors, such as wild species in the area and the sharing of equipment by two nearby facilities, could also be factors, he said.
It’s a strange time of year for ISA cases to start surfacing, Undercurrent’s veteran aquaculture source said. Normally, ISA is noticed when ocean temperatures reach between 43 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, not when the sea is about 39 degrees, as it is now.
“ISA is a funny disease,” he said. “It can hide until a fish becomes stressed and then break out.”
Fish can be contaminated without showing symptoms right away, Bricknell confirmed.
"There are times when the disease is running its course and causes a very acute anemia that the fish lose all of their red blood cells," he explained. "They might appear quite healthy on the surface, but if you make them swim very fast, for example, they don't have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen around their bodies and they die very rapidly."
When cut open, fish with ISA are often found to have fluid around the organs and black livers due to the dead red blood cells that have collected there.
The nightmare scenario: ISA in the broodstock
Marine Harvest has been waiting since late December for relevant competition authorities to approve its CAD 315m ($244.42m) deal for Northern Harvest and its 45 farming licenses as well as another 13 in application mode. As noted by Marine Harvest in its announcement of the deal, Northern Harvest is expected to deliver 19,000t of salmon in 2018.
"The potential acquisition supports Marine Harvest's long-term strategy of being a world leading and integrated producer of seafood proteins," said Marine Harvest, already the globe's largest producer of salmon, accounting for roughly 22% of its 2.4m-metric-ton annual supply.
Representatives of the firm did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment for this article.
Nova Scotia's Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is still working with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to determine what caused the Dartek Hatchery to be contaminated, Krista Higdon, a communications officer, told Undercurrent on Tuesday. The site remains under quarantine as it is being cleaned and disinfected, she said.
Fortunately for the acquiring company, Dartek isn’t Northern Harvest’s only source of young salmon. It works with several other hatcheries, including what appears to be a more prolific facility in Stephenville, Newfoundland. The Stephenville site made nine transfers of young salmon to eight of Northern Harvest’s farms in 2017, including Spyglass Cove, government records show.
While it remains unclear how the Dartek Hatchery became infected, one possible conclusion is that Northern Harvest’s broodstock operation, in Dover, Prince Edward Island, the source of salmon eggs for both hatcheries, is infected.
Ingalls, however, ruled that out in an email to Undercurrent, saying Northern Harvest's broodstock operations have been tested "conclusively" with no ISA detected.
"All freshwater facilities have been tested multiple times with all negative results," he wrote.
It’s Northern Harvest’s broodstock operation that Marine Harvest reportedly coveted most in its deal to acquire the company. As the Norwegian salmon giant continues in an aggressive growth march, it might otherwise have to buy Newfoundland salmon eggs from its chief rival, Cooke Aquaculture, or start from scratch, which would take a few years, sources told Undercurrent.
It’s Undercurrent's veteran aquaculture source's belief that this is the most likely scenario. As he explained, ISA is almost never found in freshwater facilities, such as the Dartek and Stephenville hatcheries, but always in sea water, such as would be used at a broodstock facility.
"It's very unusual to find [ISA] in a freshwater hatchery," agreed Bricknell. "Normally when the disease occurs, it affects fish in the sea. It is normally spread from farm to farm by things like wild fish traveling between two sites or equipment transferred from site to site."
But Bricknell and Hammell were both skeptical about a broodstock facility being the source of ISA. Normally the eggs at such locations are tested regularly and all are destroyed as soon as a disease is spotted, Bricknell said. That's what happened at a broodstock facility in Scotland in the late 1990s, he recalled.
A disease can also be spread to a hatchery by a contaminated water source, such as a river or stream, both Bricknell and Hammell advised.
Scotland's "scorched earth" approach to eradicating ISA, destroying mass numbers of salmon, is what enabled that industry to come back in just two years from a terrible bout with the disease, Bricknell said.
Crop insurance no longer an option
Northern Harvest isn’t the only Canadian salmon farming business to battle ISA recently. Blacks Harbor, New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture has been forced to harvest infected fish from two sites since October, the latest being a farm near Gaultois, in Newfoundland, discovered to be contaminated in February.
ISA is not new to Atlantic Canada either. It was first detected there in 1996 and did major damage in 2012 and 2013, when salmon farmers used up more than 96% of the combined $100m paid out in crop insurance across the country. The harvesters lost their ability to claim such insurance in 2014, as salmon was reclassified as a “fishery” product and no longer a “crop", recounted Bill Bryden, a Newfoundland-based, long-time opponent to salmon farming.
The Canadian salmon industry's losses were felt in 2014, when -- after producing more than 22,000t of the fish the year before -- Newfoundland and Labrador produced just 6,000t, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans reported.
Because ISA is not considered dangerous to humans, Canadian authorities began allowing salmon harvesters to sell their infected fish in stores without being labeled in early 2013. It’s a practice that Bryden fears could contribute to the spread of the disease.
“It’s ecocide. We’re washing that diseased fish down our drains in 360 villages all over Newfoundland all with independent salmon rivers,” he said. “We are going to spread that virus everywhere across Atlantic Canada.”
It was Bryden who filed an Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act request (Newfoundland and Labrador’s public records law) with the DFLR and shared his findings with Undercurrent.
However, thanks in part to the timing of the culling, the salmon removed by Northern Harvest from its Spyglass Cove site were too small to sell and were simply destroyed, Ingalls told Undercurrent.
Atlantic Canada has identified ISA in 42 cases since 2015, though only eight were deemed to be at such a stage as to require quarantining, based on CFIA records.
But the latest discovery of ISA isn’t just bad timing for Northern Harvest and Marine Harvest. In January, Norway’s Grieg Group and Canadian firm Ocean Choice International (OCI) formalized their agreement for a $201m salmon farming and processing project off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, in Placentia Bay. The project involves building a land-based recirculating aquaculture system and 11 farms, producing as much as 33,000t of salmon per year.
Could Atlantic Canada be in line for a major ISA outbreak in the future?
"I think we are likely to continue seeing small, sporadic outbreaks because of the wild fish that travel outside of the farms, but [Atlantic Canada has] one of the best surveillance programs in the world, so we are very aggressive to detect the disease as early as possible and depopulate," Hammell answered.
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