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Environmentalists, fish farm spar over mass fish die-off at Vancouver Island facility

Mass die-off at fish farm in Clayoquot Sound
WATCH: Mass die-off at fish farm in Clayoquot Sound?

A company that operates fish farms in Clayoquot Sound is responding to criticism from an environmental group over a mass die-off of fish.

Clayoquot Action, which opposes open net fish farming in the sound, raised concerns over the die-off, after producing video footage that shows a large plume of effluent flowing off the facility operated by Cermaq, north of Tofino.

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The operations are based in an area that is part of the UNESCO Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve, in the territory of the Ahousaht First Nation.

“I think the number of fish that have died right now is probably upwards of 200,000,” said Clayoquot Action’s Bonnie Glambeck of the die-off.

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“Because they can’t keep up with the amount of dead fish in the pens, the fish are rotting and the fat and flesh is starting to flow out of the open net pens and into the inlet,” she alleged.

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But according to Cermaq, the die-off is a product of a toxic algae bloom.

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“There’s a lot of misinformation out there; this is a relatively rare event out there but not unheard of,” said Cermaq spokesperson Linda Sams. “Plankton blooms happen; they happen in the sound. I’ve been doing this for well over 30 years and have seen various events like this.

“No one likes to see the fish die. We’ve cleaned it up very effectively and quickly. I would say please don’t be concerned about disease. This was definitely linked to a plankton event.”

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Cermaq is also disputing environmentalists’ claims that the discoloured runoff is a product of decaying fish.

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The company says the effluent is a combination of several factors, including sea foam from decaying algae.

“We’re [also] seeing runoff from the land,” Sams explained.

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“Not unusual in Clayoquot Sound: you get heavy rainfall, you start to get runoff from the land into the ocean, and we see these dark-coloured plumes that are related to the colour of the soil or the tannins coming into the water.

“We see that every year.”

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Glambeck says she wants to see officials investigate.

“This is where DFO needs to be on the ground and observing and taking samples and getting to the bottom of what’s happening,” she said.

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In a statement, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed the fish death was a result of a naturally occurring algae bloom, and had been reported to officials.

“DFO is satisfied that the facility operators are managing these fish health events appropriately, consistent with their conditions of licence and fish health management plan,” said the agency.

“Departmental staff will visit some of these sites during the week of November 25 to 29 as part of its audit and monitoring program.”

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Open-pen fish farming has long been a hot-button issue in B.C., pitting First Nations and environmental groups against the international industry.

Last December, the governing BC NDP announced plans to begin transitioning more than a dozen fish farms out of Vancouver Island’s Broughton Archipelago by 2024.

Last summer, the province also announced new rules requiring fish farm operators to get clearance from the DFO, showing they weren’t harming wild salmon stocks, and requiring any company applying for or renewing a licence to negotiate deals with impacted First Nations.

Those rules take effect in 2022.

— With files from Sean Boynton

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