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Deadly bacteria found in waters near west coast fur farms

Officials have found evidence of E.coli and enterococcal bacteria in waters of the Fäboda tributary near fur farms in Pietarsaari, western Finland. Because of the findings, health officials say they don’t recommend swimming in the popular recreational area. Yle’s A-Studio programme looked at the situation Monday evening.

Kuvassa valkoinen kettu häkissään
A caged white fox at a fur farm in Ostrobothnia, western Finland. Image: Kalle Niskala / Yle Keski-Pohjanmaa

Yle’s A-Studio in-depth news programme found that apart from evidence of bacteria detected this year, officials also identified high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in waterways close to fur farms in the Ostrobothnia region in 2012 and 2013.

Pietarsaari is home to one of the largest concentrations of fur farms in Finland, with some 100,000 foxes currently held in captivity. The effluent from many of these farms runs close to the Fäboda stream. Jan-Erik Holmberg has had a cottage in the area since 1986.

“Something’s rotten here! Even the officials have to admit that the water is filthy and that it stinks. One has to ask whether there is any kind of official oversight here,” Holmberg queried.

Since 1997 Holmberg has been involved in mapping the environmental impact of fur farming on the area. He pointed out that excrement from old fox houses has leaked directly into the earth, since the structures are not water tight. The animal pens essentially comprise long roofing systems that cover a series of cages.

“New structures are being built with insulated bases and urine is collected in a cesspool. The old fox houses are gradually being upgraded and fitted with watertight bases,” noted Pietarsaari environmental inspector Elinor Slotte.

Slotte explained that environmental officials have long been focusing  on the quality of water in the stream. They have held discussions with fur farmowners, health officials and local economic development, transport and environmental and employment centres (Ely-centres) about what should be done.

“This has been going on for 16 years! Now we are taking action when the stream and the tributaries are already contaminated. At the mouth of the stream you are up to your knees in the stink and in the source river bed you have 15 – 20 centimetres (of sediment). And it still hasn’t been dredged. They both had sandy bottoms before,” Holmberg remarked.

Cottage owners up in arms

Last summer officials detected salmonella, E.coli  and enterococcal bacteria as well as campylobacter, a major cause of food poisoning when found in raw or undercooked meat. This summer E.coli and enterococcal bacteria were still present in the local waterways. Pietarsaari environmental officials took samples from four different sources – they do not recommend swimming.

Moreover the seagull population has exploded in the area, fed, Holmberg speculated, by the growing fur farming industry. Local officials meanwhile, blame the seagulls -- and their droppings -- for the bacterial findings.

Whatever the reason, local cottage- and land-owners have set up a petition calling on supervisory authorities to intensify monitoring of the area and to cull seagull numbers.

High phosphorous and nitrogen content

Inspections of runoff water from the fur farms in 2012 and 2013 found high concentrations of phosphorous and nitrogen. In addition officials from the Ostrobothnia Ely-centre have said that the local water treatment plant can’t cope with the demands placed on it.

“The problem has been that we have had very wet autumns. Water has come in quickly and exited just as quickly from the fur farms. It’s better when it rains less,” said construction chief Martin Stenbacka of the Ostrobothnia Ely-centre.

Fur farm owners prepared an environmental improvement plan last year which they presented to cottage- and land-owners, as well as representatives of the southern Ostrobothnia Ely-centre.

“Everything wasn’t 100 percent in order, but we’re heading in the right direction,” said Steven Frostdahl of the Finnish Fur Farmers Association.

He said that 80 – 85 percent of fur farming sheds have been equipped with netting to prevent seagulls from getting their hands on fox rations. Additionally, fur farmers had cleared existing ditches and excavated new ones to help channel runoff water in the right direction.

Water treatment at the farms has also been enhanced by building bigger waste water pools. Meanwhile Pietarsaari city officials continue to monitor water quality and the environmental fallout from fur farming.

Lawmakers quash proposal to ban fur farming

Last June a citizen’s initiative to ban fur farming was soundly defeated in Parliament, with MPs voting 146 to 36 to overturn the proposal – 14 lawmakers were absent.

The bill was the first ever brought before the legislature by a grassroots civic movement. Parliament was obliged to consider the ban after a petition gathered well over the required 50,000 signatures.

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