Photo: Blair Davis via
Photo: Blair Davis via

Nova Scotia has new regulations for coastal aquaculture, but don’t expect that to put an end to the controversy around open net pen fish farms anytime soon.

The new rules will do little to get local communities to accept the salmon and trout industry, says Raymond Plourde, Wilderness Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. “That will become obvious the first or second time someone proposes a big fish farm somewhere,” says Plourde. “We really aren’t further ahead than we were previously.”

Plourde has long advocated a ban on finfish cage farming, which he says causes a litany of problems from general pollution to lobster kills to further stressing already dwindling populations of wild Atlantic salmon. “It’s a fundamentally flawed model,” says Plourde.

Yet, back in January, Plourde and hundreds of other open pen farm opponents gathered to endorse a plan that would allow cage farming to continue off Nova Scotia’s coasts: the Doelle-Lahey report, so-called after Meinhard Doelle and William Lahey, the two Dal law professors who authored it.

“We said alright, we would have preferred if Doelle-Lahey had banned these problematic fish farms,” says Plourde, “and we understood that by accepting it, we would have some. But we also understood there would be limits.”

Nova Scotia’s new regulations have elements of Doelle-Lahey’s recommendations, which will lead to “some practical improvements in site management and in accountability,” according to an East Coast Environmental Law analysis of the regulations released last week.

However ECELAW also concludes that the regulations “fall far short of the Doelle-Lahey recommendations,” and that:

A failure to take all Report recommendations seriously threatens the ability for finfish aquaculture to operate with social licence from the people of Nova Scotia, and may result in an atmosphere where public calls for a permanent moratorium are stronger than ever.

Social licence” is the buy-in from communities near industrial operations like mines or fish farms that defuses political opposition to such projects.

Doelle and Lahey were commissioned by the then-NDP government in 2013, which had also placed a moratorium on new aquaculture licences which is due to be lifted next year. The move was an about-face after several years of government push to grow the finfish aquaculture industry despite community opposition.

The industry is now valued at over $60 million, a large increase from its $7.2 million value in 1995. Though, according to numbers posted online by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, there are actually fewer total jobs in 2014 (606) than there were in 1995 (813).

Green fish, red fish

One of the main features of the Doelle-Lahey framework was a sort of coastal zoning policy to pre-designate suitable or unsuitable areas for finfish farms.

The report suggested that after conducting strategic environmental assessments, Nova Scotia map out green, yellow and red coastal zones, where finfish cage farming either could, might or should not happen. (Many opponents of current and proposed finfish farms say that most of Nova Scotia’s coastal waters are simply too shallow to host fish farms without adverse environmental consequences.)

The new government regulations scrapped the colour-coded concept, but did make room for something like a green zone. “Aquaculture development areas” (ADAs) are designated by the Minister, and are exempt from much of the siting process required for new applications in other areas.

However, there’s no specifics on how they are to be created.  “What is unclear and of concern is the complete discretion with which the ADAs are established,” reads ECELAW’s analysis.

Bruce Hancock is the Aquaculture Division director at the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture. Hancock says that “if you were to go to the point of having an aquaculture development area, you really would have to do a fairly extensive bit of engagement.”

“There must be something,” says Raymond Plourde. “I have to believe that they would apply some kind of assessment, but unfortunately that’s not spelled out in the regulations.”

On the flip side of green zones, Doelle-Lahey called for the designation of red zones, where finfish farming would be extremely difficult to have approved. The current regulations make no mention of anything similar.

As ECELAW reports:

There are many areas in Nova Scotia that would likely be unsuitable for marine finfish aquaculture, including areas that are biophysically improper, pose a danger to an important species such as wild salmon, an established industry, or are proximal to protected lands, such as national parks. These concerns were directly raised in the Doelle-Lahey Report… and yet are all but ignored in the new framework.

Friends of Port Mouton Bay
Friends of Port Mouton Bay

Friends of Port Mouton Bay member Gloria Gilbert is concerned that without spelling out red zones, government regulators will have trouble saying no to companies interested in establishing new finfish farms. “Right now,” says Gilbert, “any company can come along and apply for an option on any harbour. And the government has nothing to point to to say ‘sorry, not that harbour, it’s a closed zone.’”

“There’s no front loading in this new regulatory plan,” says Gilbert. “There’s nothing to prevent damage. There’s slaps on the wrist for those doing damage, but basically when you’re making 54 per cent profit you’ll pay quite a few fines and just keep doing what you’re doing.” (A 2010 Department of Fisheries and Oceans report estimated sea pens brought in a 54 per cent return on investment.)

Stewart Lamont is another Doelle-Lahey supporter, despite his belief that “feedlot activities in our Coastal Waters are almost always inappropriate.”

Lamont has more than personal reasons to be concerned over salmon feedlots: the pesticides that salmon farmers use to control sea lice in their fish are lethal to lobsters, Lamont’s bread and butter as managing director of Tangier Lobster.

“The overarching mantra of Doelle-Lahey was `high value and low impact,” says Lamont. “That philosophy does not show up anywhere in the new regulations. There appears to be no concern for high value, and the goal appears to be to significantly increase feedlot production where possible. That is incredibly discouraging.”

Doelle-Lahey recommended a proactive approach to public access to information, whereby all documents not deemed to contain confidential corporate information would be made available to the public. Our new regulations require more release of information than previously, but much less than Doelle-Lahey proposed.

ECELAW compiled a list of items required by the act and regulations governing aquaculture, but not identified as available to the public:

• Farm management plans
• Quarantine orders
• Mandatory notification of suspected breach of an aquaculture site
• Environmental monitoring plans and reports
• Mitigation plans
• Containment management plans
• Fish health records
• Required laboratory tests
• Mandatory reports of antibiotic use and sea lice treatments
• Reports of mass mortality or knowledge of disease
• Results of mandatory third party audit of containment management
• Certificate of health transfer
• Report of the scoping process
• Application for a lease
• Application for a licence
• Performance reviews
• Report on the outcome of consultations
• Public comments on proposed lease or licence
• Annual reports
• Remediation plans
• Certificate of discharge
• Minister’s criteria for selecting a proposal for an aquaculture development area
• Minister’s decision to accept a proposal for an aquaculture development area

Of course, not everyone agrees that the new regulations fall short of Doelle-Lahey.  Tom Smith, director of the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia, says that while the regulations don’t reflect every aspect of the Doelle-Lahey report, they do reflect the intent.

“Industry wants honest-to-goodness, clear, transparent, progressive regulations,” says Smith, but things like coastal zoning are not the way to get there. “I’ve never been a fan of red, green, yellow. And I don’t think the industry is. Red all of a sudden is bad, and green is good. Colour coding is not something that does anyone any service.”

Smith is a fan of one Doelle-Lahey recommendation that did make it in to the regulations: options to lease.  When companies are considering a new farm, they can now secure an option to lease an area of the coast, allowing a competition-free period to conduct evaluations and public engagement.

“They’ve implemented the stuff that the industry could live with,” says Raymond Plourde, “but it’s all about expanding the industry.” Whereas Doelle-Lahey would place limits on where expansion could happen, the current regulations do not.

Bruce Hancock says the new regulations are just a beginning. “There is a real commitment for ongoing examination of the framework and commitment to make changes as required,” says Hancock. “We fully expect to see these things evolved as they go along. They are really seen as a living document.”

Plourde doesn’t buy it. “I don’t expect much but tinkering,” says Plourde. “Once it’s already laid down, you’ve got to fight like hell to change anything.”

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