Cooke Aquaculture slow to report barge sinking
A feeding barge sank near a Cooke Aquaculture Inc. fish farm in St. Margarets Bay on Sunday, but the company did not notify the coast guard or environmental authorities until several days later, The Chronicle Herald has learned.
The barge, about seven metres long and 3.3 metres wide, is one of two the company uses to carry thousands of kilograms of food for salmon being farmed on a site near Saddle Island, off the coast of Bayswater Beach.
Company spokeswoman Nell Halse said the lag time between the incident and notifying authorities was due to a “communication breakdown” and that “the farm manager did not notify (authorities) as per our company policy.”
“The guys who were on the site did not notify them as we usually do,” she said in a telephone interview Friday.
“So once the senior people knew about it, then the communication was made and, I think, it was (Thursday) that the coast guard and environment (authorities) and everybody were out to inspect.”
She said “a combination of equipment failure and human error” caused the barge to sink, adding that there were no injuries.
Immediately after the barge sank, the company sent divers to plug any leaks, and have since installed a containment and absorbent boom around the site, said Keith Laidlaw, a senior response officer with the coast guard.
Laidlaw said the barge contained about 90 to 270 litres of fuel and about 90 litres of hydraulic fluid.
“I imagine when it first sank there was some release, but as soon as they discovered it they plugged it off,” he said Friday.
“I went down to the site (Thursday) and I went along the shoreline and I could see no evidence of any oil or pollution along the shorelines,” he said, adding he saw no pollution where the barge sank, either.
Ross Blackburn, a resident of the area, can see the open-net salmon farm from his balcony, and said he had noticed that one of the feed barges had gone missing. He said that he has been complaining about noise coming from the barges for more than two years.
“The noise from these two feed barges and their feeding compressors literally vibrate inside my living room,” he said. “It’s so bad that you can’t read on your deck; you have to go in and close all the windows, and even then the noise vibrates inside the house.”
Blackburn expressed anger that Cooke didn’t notify authorities until several days after the incident.
“To me it just shows how badly run the whole operation is, and it’s just another incident in a whole bunch of incidents that show that these farms do not belong where they are,” he said.
The sinking occurred just days after the provincial government pledged $25 million to Cooke Aquaculture in the form of interest-bearing and forgivable loans that will be applied toward the company’s planned $70-million capital infrastructure expansion projects in Shelburne County, Digby and Truro.
And it comes as opposition is growing to open-net salmon farms, with demonstrations recently in southwest Nova Scotia over concerns that the risk of disease and pollution could harm wild fish species.
Last week, news broke of a suspected outbreak of infectious salmon anemia at one of Cooke’s six operating farms in the province. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is investigating.
Earlier this year, several hundred thousand farmed salmon had to be destroyed after an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia at a Cooke fish farm in Shelburne Harbour.
Premier Darrell Dexter was unavailable for comment Friday.
But a spokeswoman for the Economic and Rural Development and Tourism Department, which along with Fisheries and Aquaculture, was involved in last week’s investment announcement, said the sinking is not a cause for concern.
“The province supports and complements the federal government’s role in maritime safety, recognizing that the federal government has the lead role. The company would make such reports to the federal government,” Jennifer Gavin said in an email Friday.
“The investment in Cooke Aquaculture is a significant one that supports hundreds of good jobs and strengthens rural communities in Nova Scotia,” she said, adding that the “federal government is also a strong supporter of Cooke, providing very significant support for its expansion in Newfoundland and its innovative operations in New Brunswick.”
Halse noted that the barge is one of 350 vessels of varying sizes that the company operates and that sinkings are rare.
“To put it into perspective, we have a huge fleet of boats; I think we have more boats than nearly any company around, so this does happen from time to time when you have (equipment) failure,” she said.
An internal investigation is underway to “make sure that this doesn’t happen again and that the communication protocols have to be followed,” she said.
The company is looking to refloat the barge “as soon as we can get everything in place next week,” she said.
“We don’t have an exact day yet ... but it is our intention to do it as quickly as possible.”