N.L. government didn’t have to disclose salmon die-off details, since no health risk: privacy commissioner

The provincial privacy commissioner says the Fisheries and Land Resources Department didn’t have an obligation to disclose information about the incidents that saw millions of dead salmon off the south coast last year.

Current legislation requires government to release information about something that has created significant harm to the environment or to health and safety. Michael Harvey says officials were unaware of any information about those risks.

Harvey launched his investigation at the end of October. He was looking into whether Section 9.3 of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act — which states that public bodies have a duty to disclose information on events that pose a risk to public or environmental safety — applied. That particular section had never been subject to any complaints or investigations.

“The commissioner’s investigation concluded that the department did not have information in its possession about a risk of significant harm to the environment or to the health or safety of the public, which it would have been obliged to disclose,” reads the report released Tuesday. 

However, Harvey’s report also notes that the information and records provided by the department did not include any records related to briefings provided by Minister Gerry Byrne or discussions between Byrne and senior officials. 

The reason? The department says all of those discussions happened verbally and zero records were kept.

Pink sludge pumped back into water

The saga started in August in the Fortune Bay area when salmon in Northern Harvest Sea Farms pens died. Initially, the company said it happened at only one site, but more details were revealed over the coming weeks — the total number of dead fish was 2.6 million, or about 5,000 tonnes. Those dead fish, at least some of them, were then churned and pumped out into the water, resulting in a pinkish sludge. 

It was NDP MHA Jim Dinn who raised the issue and wrote to Harvey asking for an investigation, after CBC published the photos of the dead fish mixture. The NDP and PCs called for Byrne to resign over what they called his mishandling of the incident.

Byrne insisted multiple times during September and October he was bound to silence because of the ongoing investigation into a massive fish kill off Newfoundland’s south coast,

During an interview with Here & Now host Anthony Germain, Byrne contended he’d be portrayed as the bad guy if he released information on the fish kill and it jeopardized the investigation into what happened.

Gerry Byrne initially said he couldn’t disclose information related to the millions of fish dying. He later clarified that wasn’t the case, and it was a point the privacy commissioner reiterated in his report released Tuesday. (CBC)

Byrne initially said it was privacy legislation that prevented him from speaking out, but he later said, in fact, it didn’t.

Harvey addresses that in his report, writing that Byrne could have disclosed information.

“Even when Section 9.3 does not apply to require disclosure, as in this case, a public body would still have the ability, if it so chose, to disclose information to the public,” he wrote.

In his report, Harvey also noted that since the “mass mortality” event, as government has referred to it, there are new policies in place that require companies to notify government and the public. However, he cautioned, “the onus would still be on the department to notify the public” if there was a significant risk.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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