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The Next Best Thing

While not a moratorium, coalition is warm to Doelle-Lahey report on open pen finfish farming.

by Miles Howe

The Doelle-Lahey regulatory framework was well received by a cross-province coalition that included reps from industry, the fishing community and environmental groups.  [Photo: Daniel Mennerich]
The Doelle-Lahey regulatory framework was well received by a cross-province coalition that included reps from industry, the fishing community and environmental groups. [Photo: Daniel Mennerich]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Nearly two years after banding together, 36 member groups of the coalition against open pen finfish aquaculture in Nova Scotia were back today at the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax. The groups, which range from 'Big Lobster' interests to sport fishing interests, to tiny coastal community networks, braved the abnormally frigid Atlantic temperatures to celebrate the recommendations put forward by the Doelle-Lahey regulatory framework.

Open pen finfish farms in Nova Scotia, particularly of the farmed salmon variety, have for numerous years been a contentious issue, particularly amongst the impacted coastal communities. The previous provincial New Democratic government, when in opposition, took up the plight of protesters, who claimed that the farms were creating 'dead zones' of the inlets and bays that they depended upon for their own wild fishing economies. Fish feces, unconsumed fish feed, pesticides and medications all worked together to created an oxygen-sucking slurry not particularly conducive to lobster hatching grounds, for example.

There was also the matter of wild Atlantic salmon populations getting potentially rocked by their sicklier, penned-in, and heavily medicated, cousins. Outbreaks of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) and the problem of sea lice, were, critics claimed, far more common in the cramped conditions of 'farm life'. Migrating wild populations could pick up these problems when passing by, causing already tenuous stocks to further dwindle.

Once in power, however, the New Democrats did the political flip-flop, going so far as to court farmed fish giant Cooke Aquaculture into the province in a big way. It wasn't as though Cooke was a 'good corporate neighbour' either. In 2011, Kelly Cove Salmon, a Cooke subsidiary, dumped cypermethrine, a pesticide not approved for Canada, into some of their New Brunswick fish farms. In that case, the judge ruled that the Kelly Cove employees, including CEO Glenn Cooke himself, had “failed miserably” and “willfully ignored” existing regulations.

The province offered up $25 million in loans, much of them forgivable, towards Cooke's expansion. Almost immediately, however, predictions of ISA outbreaks started coming true. Several cases of Infectious Salmon Anemia were reported at Cooke facilities in 2012. Local public opinion on the matter was further taxed by the opaque nature of government's dealings with the outbreaks. In some cases, details weren't released until weeks afterwards.

Actions groups began to take matters into their own hands, following up on their own suspicions for lack of any visible governmental monitoring. In some cases, as when ten of thousands of fish went missing from a St. Margaret's Bay fish farm, it was locals who discovered fish farm employees trucking and dumping dead fish at the Digby dump.

'Compensation' moneys for failed Atlantic salmon farmers was also a major issue. Action groups like the Ecology Action Centre decried the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's habit of compensating fish farms for outbreaks of ISA, due to “entirely predictable disease outbreaks”. They estimated that in the Maritime provinces, compensation had exceeded $139 million in the past two decades. Indeed, of the $60 million in transfer payments that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency paid out in transfer payments for all failed farms in 2014, upwards of 90% went to Atlantic Canadian salmon farmers. With millions in transfer payments and forgivable loans, salmon farming begins to resemble a money funnelling scheme.

Perhaps one of the greatest insults to the public palate came in late 2013, when ISA-infected, Nova Scotia, farmed salmon, banned for import into Asian, European and American markets, was deemed safe enough to consume for the locals.

“The status quo was a wild west show,” says Stewart Lamont, of Tangier Lobster.

With an election looming and public protests now standard across the province, in 2013 the New Democrats did another about-face, this time setting a moratorium on all new fish farm licence applications, pending a regulatory review. While they ultimately lost the election, Dalhousie law professors Doelle and Lahey were hired for the job. Just prior to the December holidays in 2014, they released their report.

The report is comprehensive; its guiding principle is creating a 'high value, low impact' scenario, where industry and coastal communities can potentially live together. In a sense, it's a do-over from the provincial government. And judging from the overwhelmingly positive reaction from everyone in attendance at the January 8th press conference, it is agreeable to even those who stand to be most impacted by the potential of fish farms in their backyards.

All aspects of potential harm arising from fish farming are addressed in the report. From site selection, to stock density, to enforced fallow periods, to farm limits, all the way to oxic limits and the health of the seabed; all are contained within its pages. The new polit-speak term of 'social licence' also features heavily, in that there are clear steps for consultation with impacted communities, including space for participation in an 'Ongoing Regulatory Advisory Committe'.

The trick, of course, is to implement the regulatory framework, and then enforce it. Delegates were clear at the press conference that they weren't interested in an implementation plan that “cherry picked” or brought in “half measures.”

The report recommends that enforcement of the framework ultimately be placed on the provincial Department of Environment, a natural choice. But the Department is notorious for its forgiveness of industry (see Northern Pulp mill), and sometimes for its outright incompetence (see shipping millions of litres of radioactive frack waste to the town of Windsor, without knowing it was radioactive).

“A huge increase will be needed in the capacity of the department,” says Wendy Watson-Smith, of the Association for the Preservation of the Eastern Shore. “Communities have already said that they're willing to participate in becoming part of advisory committees, but enforcement will be a problem for this department, especially for this Liberal government who says that they have no money.

“Industry, at some point, has to pay to enforce their own regulations. Getting more out of lease prices is definitely one way [to recoup the costs of monitoring and enforcement].”

Cooke Aquaculture, by far the biggest player in the Atlantic Canadian farmed fish scene, has, for their part, spent $600,000 on a newly-branded research chair at Dalhousie University. A study from the Cooke Industrial Research Chair is currently underway.

While not the moratorium they still stand for, today's reaction to the Doelle-Lahey report suggests that the cross-province coalition sees it as the next best thing.


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