In the middle of January, representatives from Cermaq Canada were in Digby, Nova Scotia on the second leg of the company’s “Hello Nova Scotia” tour — a folksy attempt by the global aquaculture giant to “consult” the small, rural, coastal communities that would be affected by its salmon farm expansion plan.

The firm is part of Cermaq Global, formerly a Norwegian state-controlled salmon producer purchased by Mitsubishi Corporation in 2014 for $1.4 billion, with operations in Norway, Chile, and British Columbia, where after years of controversy as well as conflict with First Nations groups, the company is shutting down some of its operations — a subject we’ll return to.

Last year, the provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA) granted the company an “option to lease” in a number of areas in the province including two locations in the Chedabucto Bay region near Guysborough, St. Mary’s Bay near Digby Neck, Green Bay to Mahone Bay, and St. Margaret’s Bay.

Cermaq is currently in the “scoping phase” of the process, to “collect information,” and “share information” and is required to hold at least one public meeting near the potential site location.

Cermaq’s Option to Lease locations: Chedabucto Bay, St. Mary’s Bay, Mahone Bay, and St. Margaret’s Bay.

The company — which has already set up an office in Guysborough with plans for more in Digby and Richmond — tells me “No one option location is a suitable fit for the number of sites we would like to develop or the level of production we have identified. We would require multiple locations to proceed.”

Its $500 million proposal is to develop 20 open-pen Atlantic salmon farm sites, two hatcheries and a processing plant. To justify a Nova Scotia operation it says it needs an annual production of 20,000 metric tonnes of fish — an amount that’s roughly equivalent to what it currently produces in British Columbia. According to provincial and federal data, it would increase the number of salmon farms in this province from eight to 28 and would more than double the current levels of production. [1]According to NSDFA data, total finfish production in NS in 2018 (the most recent year data were available) was 8.2 million kg. Federal data is from National Aquaculture Public Reporting Data.

But so far, residents don’t seem much in the mood for chatting over coffee, let alone entertaining Cermaq’s half-a-billion-dollar proposal. The lobster fishermen who were among the few to brave the bad winter weather to attend the Guysborough meetings — the first stop in the tour — expressed concerns about how the fish farms would adversely affect the lobsters and their livelihoods. The fishermen also noted that when coupled with the proposed Eastern Shore Islands Marine Protected Area, the Cermaq fish farms would further squeeze them out of the spaces they previously fished. And when it came to jobs, they argued fishing commercially creates far more of them than farming fish does.

By the time the Digby meetings rolled around, Cermaq’s reception was even frostier than the weather. So much so that the company penned a letter to Digby Neck residents a couple of weeks later acknowledging the “strong opposition,” and wanting to “assure” them the emails and letters would all be “saved and recorded” as “part of our feasibility and engagement work summary.”

We have noted the issues and concerns raised including the displacement of commercial fishermen, the loss of income for families, the impacts on local commercial fisheries, pollution, ocean-floor impacts, potential for interaction with marine mammals such as the endangered Right whale, impacts of local tourism, fish welfare, water quality of nearby recreational beaches and overall loss of use.

In the letter, Cermaq also acknowledged the recent vote taken by the Municipality of the District of Digby to oppose the expansion of salmon farming into St. Mary’s Bay.

In the meantime, the provincial minister in charge of aquaculture, Keith Colwell, has been reported saying fish farming represents a huge economic driver for communities, and will continue to exist into the future.

And so it begins.

With more of these “informal open-houses” on the horizon — one soon to be held in St. Margaret’s Bay, where a citizen’s group has already formed, and where I also happen to live — I can’t help but wonder, is there really any way out?

I mean, there’s no shortage of news stories characterizing the aquaculture industry in Canada and abroad as being as slippery as the fish they farm: stories about fish kills, pesticide use, antibiotic use, and disease outbreaks; stories about data being withheld and lack of transparency; stories about how farmed salmon are affecting wild salmon populations, or affecting the lobster fishery. There are even questions being raised about whether there are enough wild fish left to feed the farmed ones. [2]I generally like the use of hyperlinks but sometimes they send the reader down a rabbit hole, never to return to the original piece they were reading. So for that reason I put links to some of the … Continue reading

While the locations may be different, the narrative is the same almost everywhere on the planet. When it comes to large-scale marine-based fish feedlots, all bets are off, and any recognition of natural limits just seems to disappear.

Ground Zero in the Salmon Wars

Last year, when Cermaq Canada was requesting an Option to Lease in four bays in the Guysborough and Digby regions of Nova Scotia, and then in two more bays on the South Shore,  the company already knew the writing was on the wall for some its open pen salmon operations located in the Broughton Archipelago — a collection of small islands on the coast of British Columbia (BC), east of Vancouver Island.

As early as November 2018, Cermaq and Mowi Canada West (formerly Marine Harvest) — the two companies that operate farms in the Broughton area — had been in discussions with First Nations and the BC government to come up with a plan to “transition” up to 17 farms from the area over a four-year period ending in 2023. By September of 2019, Cermaq and Mowi had signed a monitoring and inspection plan with three First Nations — Namgis, Mamalilikulla, and Kwikwastu’inuxw/ Haxwa’mis — giving the Indigenous groups oversight during the process to create a “farm free migration corridor” for wild fish. [3]According to the Indigenous Monitoring and Inspection Plan (IMIP) backgrounder: “On a tenure-by-tenure basis, the recommendations provide for an orderly transition of 17 fish farm sites between … Continue reading

Cermaq Canada’s operations in British Columbia. The company says it has 27 salmon farm licenses on both east and west coast of Vancouver Island, four hatcheries and a processing plant in Tofino, with a total production there of 24,000 metric tonnes, a little over what it’s proposing for NS. Screen shot taken from its Options to Lease application to NS Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture. For a detailed listing of all marine finfish aquaculture facilities in BC in 2018 go here.

I contacted Cermaq spokesperson Amy Jonsson to find out more about its move out of the Archipelago, and about whether the company’s interest in Nova Scotia has anything to do with phasing out its farms there. She pointed me to the company’s releases on the subject, here, and here, but neither goes into any detail. Jonsson did say the company has removed two of its sites to date and has an additional six sites in the Archipelago, but would not say whether these were also affected by the transition plan.

“The decision to investigate a potential expansion into Nova Scotia is an independent business decision, not based on any of our activities or work underway in BC,” she stated in an email.

While the agreement is obviously a positive move towards resolving long-standing concerns held by First Nations groups and other critics of the industry’s unfettered expansion, it also points to years of conflict and inaction.

For instance, in 2016 tribal chiefs of the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw, who live in a remote part of the Broughton Archipelago, boarded two fish farms and gave eviction notices to nearly 30 farms operated by Cermaq and Marine Harvest in their territory. In another incident that year, residents of the Ahousaht community near Tofino, were arrested after protesting Cermaq’s Dixon Bay facility, where the company was attempting to stock the farm after being previously closed due to a disease outbreak.

Protests like these over concerns about how farmed Atlantic salmon were affecting their wild Pacific counterparts reached a flashpoint about a decade ago when the entire corridor from the Strait of Georgia to the Queen Charlotte Strait, including the Broughton Archipelago, became ground zero in the salmon wars. That was when only one million Fraser River sockeye salmon returned to the river to spawn when more than 10 million were expected.

Critics of the open-pen farms blamed the collapse on disease and sea lice they argued spread to the wild salmon stocks, a result of the heavy concentration of salmon farms situated along the sockeye’s narrow migration route. It’s a connection that has since been largely verified, though questions about other possible contributing factors remain. [4]The 2012 Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel report chaired by Dalhousie University Fisheries biologist Jeff Hutchings, looked at the issues facing Canada’s marine biodiversity in light of … Continue reading

Early on, the DFO had also found evidence of viral activity and leukemia in the dying wild fish, one that critics said had been detected in Chinook salmon farms sited on the sockeye salmon route as early as the 1990s. [5]The study was led by Dr. Kristi Miller, head of molecular genetics at the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. After her groundbreaking study — pointing to a viral infection in wild … Continue reading As well, there were observations of wild juvenile salmon infected with sea lice — something that can occur naturally but normally only with adult fish.

Map showing fish farms around Vancouver Island adjacent to major wild salmon migration routes. From Raincoast Research.

Shock and public outcry over the sockeye salmon collapse and its suspected links to the growing clusters of fish farms resulted in a 21-month-long judicial inquiry to investigate the cause. In the end, BC Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, who headed up the Cohen Commission, made 75 sweeping recommendations, including two that specified conditions for the removal of salmon farms from the Archipelago and Discovery Islands region of the BC coast. The bottleneck effect created on their migratory corridor increased the risk of migrating salmon being exposed to disease from the farmed fish. [6]See Section 3.1.2.1 of this report for more on the Cohen Commission’s findings. Cohen also took aim at the lack of transparency and recommended timely access to all fish health data and that they be made public. [7]The DFO’s update on the implementation of Justice Cohen’s 75 recommendations to date can be found here.

Remarkably, despite the comprehensive list of recommendations, things have gotten worse. According to the Fraser River Panel, in 2019 only 557,000 Fraser River sockeye returned to the river to spawn — the worst year on record.[8]From Fraser River Panel Weekly Report #7, August 23, 2019. As well, while the federal government had placed a moratorium on aquaculture development in BCs Discovery Islands following the 2009 collapse, that has since been lifted and finfish operations are now able to get one-year licences to operate in the region, compared to the normal six-year term.

However, this could soon change if we are to believe election promises. Last year Trudeau’s Liberals pledged to phase out open-pen finfish farming on the west coast and move to closed-containment systems by 2025. While the government has since backtracked, saying it will prepare a plan for the transition by that time frame, we don’t have any such assurances here, where licensing of these operations remains a provincial matter. [9]In 2009, Alexandra Morton, biologist and founder of the Raincoast Research Society, launched and eventually won a legal challenge in the BC Supreme Court that forced the provincial government to hand … Continue reading

‘A Normal Business Day’

It’s probably fair to say that fish farms have been good for their owners, but when all things are considered, benefits to local communities have been largely overstated. According to provincial data, over the last 25 years, production and sales in finfish aquaculture (salmon, trout, halibut, bass, etc.) have skyrocketed from just 1.5 million kg in 1995 to 8.2 million kg in 2018. Over the same time period, sales increased seven fold to more than $74 million in 2018.

But despite the promise of jobs, technological “innovations” have resulted in jobs being shed, not gained. In the finfish industry — where there’s been a five-fold increase in production since the mid-1990s — the number of jobs has actually declined. In 1995, 311 people were employed in the industry, 100 of those full-time. By 2018 only 189 people were employed, and of those, 138 were full time.

To make matters worse, as production processes intensified rapidly, there was not enough regulatory oversight, which resulted in egregious examples of reckless behaviour on the part of the industry.

For instance, in early 2012 federal charges were filed against Cooke Aquaculture of New Brunswick, alleging illegal use of pesticides to fight a stubborn case of sea lice — a move that ended up killing hundreds of lobsters in the Bay of Fundy. The company eventually pleaded guilty to the charges and was ordered to pay $500,000.

Nova Scotians were also rattled by news of an outbreak of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) at the company’s operation near Shelburne. The deadly virus can spread to wild fish through the excretions from infected fish or via contaminated water. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency ordered the company to slaughter nearly a million fish — for which it eventually received $13 million in government compensation — raising additional questions about whether farms should be getting public money for diseased fish.

When asked about the disease outbreak at the Shelburne Harbour facility, Sterling Belliveau, the province’s minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture at the time was reported to have said, “It’s a normal business day, and these particular incidents are being managed in an appropriate fashion.”

With a number of coastal communities experiencing similar breaches of trust, it was really no surprise when a coalition of more than 50 organizations had formed, including groups from the environmental, tourism, and commercial fishing sectors, calling on the governing NDP under Premier Darrell Dexter to declare a provincial moratorium on salmon feedlots. “We are asking the Premier to begin to engage meaningfully with coastal communities and to consider replacing the current rapid expansion of net pen aquaculture with more responsible avenues,” read the release at the time.

In response, the government put all new marine-based aquaculture site applications on hold and in 2013 appointed a panel to come up with recommendations to make the regulatory system more rigorous. The panel was headed by Meinhard Doelle and William Lahey, who at the time were two law professors at Dalhousie University with expertise in environmental law and policy, as well as in regulation in the natural resources sector.

In their final report, Doelle and Lahey called for nothing short of a “fundamental overhaul” of the regulation of aquaculture and argued that the changes should aim for an industry that’s “low impact” while also being “high value.” They wrote:

By this, we mean aquaculture that combines two fundamental attributes: it has a low level of adverse environmental and social impact, which decreases over time; and from the use of coastal resources it produces a positive economic and social value, which is high and increases over time.

While Doelle and Lahey were urged by a number of participants in the consultation process to recommend a permanent moratorium on marine-based fin-fish facilities, particularly salmon farms, they weren’t prepared to go so far. They argued that if the regulation of aquaculture was overhauled as they recommend, it would be able to address “the serious and legitimate concerns raised,” and significantly reduce the risks and impacts.

“It is critical that we stress the following point,” they wrote: “our conclusion that we should not recommend a permanent moratorium assumes the adoption and effective implementation of the regulatory framework we have outlined in this report.”

Doelle and Lahey noted, however, that even with the most stringent regulations, fin-fish operations are not appropriate in all coastal waters in NS and one of their “core” recommendations was the creation of a classification system that would rate coastal areas of the province as green, yellow, or red based on their relative suitability for finfish aquaculture. They also recommended that the regulation of aquaculture should be “strongly separated” from the “role of industry promotion,” a conflict of interest that was found to have compromised regulatory rigor in BC, resulting in a successful law suit, and a jurisdictional shift in that province of licensing to the feds.

Doelle and Lahey also highlighted the importance of transparency: “As nearly as possible,” they wrote, “the objective should be to make application of the entire regulatory framework an open book.”

So as Cermaq now considers an expansion to Nova Scotia, it is navigating through the province’s new regulatory process, one that critics say may not be as rigorous as they’d hoped.

Everything a Green Zone

According to Bruce Nunn, the media contact for the province’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA), the updated regulatory framework is “modern, science-based, more transparent and accountable, and provides multiple opportunities for public input.” Nunn provided me with a list of some of the changes he said were made based on the advice and recommendations of the Doelle-Lahey report, the Auditor General’s report, and a review of regulations in other jurisdictions. [10]According to DFA spokesperson Bruce Nunn, the new regulatory system changes include: Greater opportunity for public comment through the leasing and licensing process. The process includes public … Continue reading

Cermaq Canada is now in Step 2 of Phase 1, the “scoping phase” of the provinces updated regulatory process for marine aquaculture licence and lease applications. Phase 2 is the “review phase” when the proponent submits an application to the department for review, which includes a “development plan” (DP) which includes the information collected in Phase 1. In Phase 3 the Nova Scotia Aquaculture Review Board will hold a public hearing on the application in a community close to the potential site. The Review Board then has 30 days to make a decision to approve, approve with conditions, or reject the application. This decision can be appealed but the department must implement the final outcome.

One of the changes is that the responsibility for compliance and enforcement of the regulations no longer rests with the DFA, but has been moved to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment (NSE), where NSE “compliance officers” can issue “summary offence tickets” on a wide variety of infractions and also have the power to revoke a licence.

There also seems to be an increase in opportunity for public input in the “scoping phase” as well as in the final phase of the process when the Nova Scotia Aquaculture Review Board holds a public hearing on the application in a community close to the potential site.

But according to the Ecology Action Centre, the new regulations are a “significant departure” from the Doelle-Lahey recommendations. When the DFA released the new regulations in 2015, the Halifax-based environmental group published a comprehensive analysis of the changes, describing the omissions in the regulations as “a failure of government,” and called for a continued moratorium on new fin-fish farms.

One of those glaring omissions is the classification system.

In a rambling and difficult to understand statement, Nunn seems to say that while the government “recognizes the benefits of greater upfront planning to identify areas suitable for aquaculture that are compatible with the environment and other users,” it hasn’t really done anything concrete about it. [11]Nunn’s response in full: “Government recognizes the benefits of greater upfront planning to identify areas suitable for aquaculture that are compatible with the environment and other users. … Continue reading

The EAC argued that the new regulations effectively only provide for “green zones,” providing “no certainty to communities or the aquaculture industry and does not take into consideration that much of the province is not suitable to open net pen fin fish” farming.

Another, key, omission involves transparency. The updated regulations also seem to increase, rather than limit Ministerial discretion. According to the EAC, limiting ministerial discretion was a foundational element of the Doelle-Lahey work because it increases transparency and builds public trust in the system. But instead the new framework provides “avenues for Ministerial discretion in the absence of public consultation and science-based decision-making,” says the organization.

Meinhard Doelle is currently on leave from Dalhousie University as chair in Marine Environmental Protection at the World Maritime University in Malmö, Sweden. In an interview he said, “the classification system was in my view a good way to diffuse some of the concerns about clearly unsuitable sites, but it was not essential in my view to an appropriate regulatory approach. I think everyone would have been better off if we could have been clear about which sites are off the table, and which sites seem most appropriate for various types of aquaculture, but that does not mean you can’t make good decisions on a case by case basis.”

Doelle went on to say that some of the key elements of his and Lahey’s recommendations dealt with the need for “full transparency…about what happens at operating sites in combination with a commitment to only permit sites to operate that are able to meet the standards.”

Too often, governments and operators hide behind business confidentiality and refuse to disclose the information needed for everyone to know who is operating responsibly and who is not. Related to that is that governments are often quite prepared to impose strict conditions at the start, but tend to be reluctant to enforce those conditions, resulting in facilities operating in violation of those basic conditions.

I asked Doelle: “Cermaq has had issues in other jurisdictions re: mass die offs (due to algal blooms), fish escapes, sea lice and viruses. It’s even violated food safety rules in the US regarding its processing plant in Chile. Do you think the province’s new regulatory system can effectively prevent these kinds of negative outcomes from happening here?

Doelle: “Ultimately much depends on how the regulatory system is implemented.”

Prevention versus Mitigation

Inka Milewski is a research associate in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University and was involved in a series of long-term studies of a contentious aquaculture site in Port Mouton Bay in Nova Scotia’s South Shore region.[12]In the mid-1990s a salmon farm at Spectacle Island in Port Mouton Bay was operated by Aqua Fish Farms, and then by Cooke Aquaculture, which purchased the facility in 2008 and assumed management of … Continue reading

In a 2018 co-authored study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series — a collaboration between scientists and lobster fishers — Milewski and her colleagues reported on the results of an 11-year investigation into the effects of sea-cage aquaculture on the commercially important species of Port Mouton Bay, namely lobster, and found that on average, there was a 42% drop in lobster catch and a 56% drop in observed egg-bearing females in the years when the fish farms were active in the bay. While the study authors were unable to draw any definitive conclusions, the study did point to changes in habitat and water quality — dissolved sulfides and ammonia from the farms — as having a behavioural and toxic effect on the lobsters.

Inka Milewski in 2011 at the start of a three-year field study at a former fish farm in Shelburne (NS). Contributed.

When it comes to the province’s new regulatory framework, and whether it would be able to prevent a situation like this one from happening again, Milewski is skeptical. She says the DFA has had environmental monitoring guidelines for finfish aquaculture since 2002. “The guidelines were just that, guidelines,” she tells me.

“If guidelines were exceeded, more sampling was done. If guidelines were still exceeded, the farm might need to cut production or stop production for a few months… until monitoring showed the chemistry of the sea-bottom had recovered. Then, the farm would start up again and the cycle would be repeated.” Milewski says that “nowhere in the decision-making process would a farm be required to stop production indefinitely.” This same environmental guideline is in place today, she says.

According to Milewski, under the province’s 2017 environmental monitoring program (EMP) framework, “Once a farm gets a licence to operate, no amount of environmental monitoring data collected at the site or research demonstrating impacts will prompt regulators to shut down a farm permanently.” [13]Milewski also points out that in the old regulatory system the proponent was responsible for submitting an “Environmental Impact Assessment” (EIA). This document, which includes the biophysical, … Continue reading

When it comes to the issue of transparency, Milewski says, “Since the industry has been given permission to release their waste, including bacteria, viruses and sea lice into public waters shared by many users, information about disease occurrence, pesticide and drug use, and environmental monitoring data should be public and easily available.”

Drug and pesticide use data for 2018 compiled and provided by Inka Milewski.

Under the current federal Aquaculture Activity Regulations, aquaculture operators must report their drug and pesticide use, as well as environmental monitoring data to DFO, which in turn makes it available here. The data show that in the case of Nova Scotia, while production decreased in 2018, more farms reported using antibiotics (it was zero in 2017).

As well, disease occurrence is reported for some viruses on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Website. Milewski says these data should be up to date, which they aren’t, and they should also be made available on a provincial website.

Climate Change Adds to Uncertainty

According to Cermaq’s Amy Jonsson, one of the things the company is gathering during the “scoping phase” is the “biophysical feasibility” of the sites, including depth, water temperatures, current speeds, ocean floor type, and historic storm data.

Ideally, we need a minimum depth of 25 metres, we evaluate sea-bottom type which relates to other potential uses of the space as well as management of the individual sites and their environmental performance …We are looking for water temperatures that are conducive to the biological needs of the salmon which have temperatures that they grow best and survive in and enough of a current to ensure the water and ocean floor remains oxygenated. We also require enough shelter in potential locations to protect from large storm action, this is determined through modelling conditions based on data collected as well as engineered design of potential farm infrastructure.

Milewski says that 25 metres of depth doesn’t guarantee anything. “Whether a fish farm will impact the sea bottom or water quality will depend on many factors [in addition to depth], including local current speeds, bottom type… size of the bay/cove/inlet, bottom contours such as the presence of basins and sills and, of course, production levels.”

The thing is, despite all the assurances companies and governments give that these operations are properly sited, almost all finfish facilities run into serious problems at some point.

For instance, around the same time that Cermaq announced it had been granted two more “options to lease,” on Canada’s east coast, things were not going well at its salmon feedlots in the UNESCO designated area just north of Tofino, Vancouver Island. Three of the company’s Clayoquot Sound operations were experiencing a massive die off — which the firm reported at the time was the result of a “harmful” algal bloom, “associated with low dissolved oxygen events and warm ocean water temperatures and weather changes.” The bloom robbed the water of oxygen and suffocated the caged fish, leaving behind a putrid, stinky, polluted mess.

A news report at the time noted that each of the three affected operations contained about half a million Atlantic salmon and discharged into the Sound every year the equivalent nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich nutrients — from feces and uneaten fish food — of a city with 180,000 people.

While Cermaq wouldn’t initially confirm the numbers of dead fish for “commercial reasons,” it eventually revealed that more than 200,000 fish were killed.

But fish kills seem to be ubiquitous in the industry. The Global Aquaculture Alliance reported that in 2016, two major toxic blooms in southern Chile near Chiloe Island that occurred in close succession resulted in the worst algal bloom in the history of the country resulting in the death of nearly 40 million salmon, or 100,000 metric tonnes valued at US $800 million. Cermaq was one of a number of companies there whose salmon farms were affected. Last spring in northern Norway about eight million caged salmon died during a bloom that surged up the coast, and last September, closer to home, nearly two million salmon died over an 11 to 13-day period of low-oxygen levels at a Northern Harvest Sea Farms facility on Newfoundland’s south coast — where eye-witness accounts noted that in some areas the rotten fish sludge on the bottom of Fortune Bay was more than 15 metres thick.

Yardstick standing upright in waste layer, up to 32-inch mark, Port Mouton Bay. Courtesy Kathy and Dave Brush.

Given the frequency, and in some cases massive scale, of these fish kills, I ask Milewski if she would comment about whether fish farms themselves could be contributing to these deadly blooms?

“Tracing the source of nitrogen (which is key to causing algal blooms) from the various potential sources in coastal environments is somewhat complex,” she says, and because the issue is so complex, “industry is provided with a convenient scape-goat: climate change/warming oceans. The bottom line is that you can warm the oceans as much as you want but if there are no nutrients in the water, algae won’t grow. Those nutrients have to come from somewhere.”

She points me to a 2013 study, that concludes there is a connection between large, unassimilated nutrient loads — from feces and uneaten food — and harmful algal blooms (HABs). The nutrients may promote HABs directly, or indirectly, by stimulating the growth of an algae on which HABS feed. The study also projected that waste nutrients from finfish and shellfish farms will increase up to six fold by 2050, and in places where growth in the industry is already rapid, this will overload the capacity of these ecosystems to assimilate the waste.

On the flip side, climate-related ocean warming is making the already challenging exercise of predicting outcomes like HABs that much more difficult.

According to the 2012 Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel report that looked at the issues facing Canada’s marine biodiversity in light of challenges posed by climate change, fisheries, and aquaculture, “Much of the public controversy associated with aquaculture stems from the uncertainty of their impacts on natural systems,” and climate change will only exacerbate that uncertainty.

A 2013 DFO study that looked at the potential impacts of climate change on marine aquaculture in Atlantic Canada reported rising sea surface temperatures would result in increased disease and parasites, as well as an increase in harmful algal blooms.[14]https://i0.wp.com/www.halifaxexaminer.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/I3.-In-End-Note-14.png?resize=300%2C213&ssl=1 300w, https://i0.wp.com/www.halifaxexaminer.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/I3.-In-End-Note-14.png?resize=250%2C178&ssl=1 250w” sizes=”(max-width: 641px) 100vw, 641px” />The study seemed to suggest that the long-term viability of the industry depends on identifying the implications of a changing climate ahead of time.

I ask Cermaq spokesperson Amy Jonsson about the Clayoquot Sound die-offs and how climate change will get factored into the company’s decision-making when it comes to the siting process here. “We use ocean modelling and are more and more looking into climate modelling,” she says.

“We know that the earth is warming, which includes its oceans. We are seeing changes in ocean temperatures, storm activity and traditional currents, all of which need to be taken into account for our long term development planning in Nova Scotia.”

Leaping wild Atlantic salmon at Big Falls, Humber River, NL. Photo courtesy Tom Moffatt/Atlantic Salmon Federation.

Endangered but Not protected

 It’s sometimes hard to imagine what Nova Scotia would have been like four centuries ago. But some of the earliest written accounts of the natural abundance describe a plenitude that today seems unfathomable: The salmon being so plentiful that the noise of them entering the river at night, “falling upon the water after having thrown or darted themselves into the air,” made it impossible to sleep. This is how Nicolas Denys described the wild Atlantic salmon runs of the 1600s. Denys was a French aristocrat and lieutenant on an expedition to the New World and founded various settlements in what we now refer to as the Maritimes. He also noted that the smallest salmon were three feet long.[15]From Nicolas Denys’ 1672 two –volume book Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America (Acadia).

Today, the species teeters on the brink of extinction. In November 2010 the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the Nova Scotia Southern Upland population of Atlantic salmon as being endangered, though the species has yet to be officially listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Even though a legal listing of a species is not required for governments to initiate a recovery strategy, it does automatically result in one. In other words, when there is no listing, there is no legal requirement to protect it.

According to the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO), aquaculture is one of the threats to Atlantic salmon stocks: there can be genetic effects when farmed salmon escape into wild populations, and — as we’ve seen in BC — diseases and deadly sea lice can spread from infected farmed fish to wild fish. But to be fair, the perils of aquaculture aren’t the only threat facing what’s left of the dwindling species: overfishing, climate change, habitat destruction, predators, migration barriers, and pollution are also factors.

Kris Hunter is the Nova Scotia and PEI program director for the Atlantic Salmon Federation. He says that while the species is endangered there are “a lot of remnant populations still existing… and a few of them are quite sizable and we’ve got restoration programs on many of these rivers actively working to preserve these populations and enhance them through natural means.”

Hunter says the group is quite concerned that Cermaq’s expansion could threaten all that.

“We are opposed to the expansion of open-net pen aquaculture especially into new areas where it didn’t exist before, which is the case for several of Cermaq’s proposed bays, including Chedabucto Bay, St. Margaret’s Bay, and Mahone Bay,” he says.

With Cermaq’s proposed production levels — more than doubling what NS is currently producing — there’s “increased risk of sea lice, disease, and escapes and all the other issues that threaten wild Atlantic salmon, so we’re very much concerned about the size and scale of this proposal,” he tells me.

There are river inhabitants at St. Francis Harbour and Salmon River; there are sizable populations at Chedabucto Bay, literally right where they want to put these farms is at the mouths of some of these rivers so that’s very, very concerning. Down in the Twin Bays area — St. Margaret’s and Mahone Bay — there’s Gold River, the Mushamush River, and a bunch of other little ones too: Ingram River, Middle RIver, just to name a few. These are all small and they have small populations but we think the argument should be made that small remnant populations of a species that’s endangered is where you need to have your best protections, and not just write them off. 

ASF Biologist Eric Brunsdon with aquaculture escapes captured in the Magaguadavic River of southwest NB. Sometimes escapes travel hundreds of miles before entering rivers, and potentially destroying the genetic integrity of wild salmon there. Photo courtesy Tom Moffatt/ASF.

Hunter also points out that it’s not just the salmon coming from the rivers in Cermaq’s “optioned” Bays that are at risk. “Fish from the Lahave River could be coming and spending time in Mahone Bay, and the Lahave is one of the rivers with a sizable population left.”

When it comes to the province’s new regulatory framework, Hunter acknowledges there has been some progress, particularly with regards being able to trace an escaped finfish back to the operator. But he says a lot of the “meat and potatoes of the Doelle-Lahey report did not get adopted.” Like others, he points to the specific recommendation calling for a classification system and how “there were supposed to be clearly established aquaculture ‘go’ and ‘no go’ zones throughout the province… each Bay was supposed to get a designation and that never happened.”

“But just to put things into context,” he says, “there isn’t a regulatory framework in the world that has ever been able to mitigate all the impacts on wild Atlantic salmon. Anywhere we have aquaculture and wild Atlantic salmon co-located, the wild salmon always come away from it for the worse.”

Hunter says the “strong, local opposition” to Cermaq’s expansion plans “makes it really clear there isn’t the social licence for these farms to operate. Communities want a say and they want to be able to make the decision for themselves about whether they want this industry in their backyards.”

Large wild Atlantic salmon photographed in the St. Mary’s River in Nova Scotia in Nov. 2019. Photo courtesy ASF/Nick Hawkins and Tom Cheney.

St. Margaret’s Bay area resident Geoff Leboutillier agrees. He helped to spearhead the Twin Bays Coalition in response to the government granting Cermaq an option to lease in Mahone Bay and St. Margaret’s Bay. The group is just one in a number that have formed in the province over the years and has already made presentations to the town of Chester and Mahone Bay, both unanimously supporting the coalition’s position, he says.

Leboutillier says he doesn’t trust that the new regulatory system is rigorous enough. “The essential recommendations were never realized,” he says.

Twin Bays is advocating for land-based closed containment systems, like this one that already exist in Nova Scotia. “My mind goes to community-owned and operated closed containment operations peppered all over the province, capitalizing on our seafood know-how, our market proficiency, and our proximity to major markets,” he explains.

With open net pens there’s just so much that can’t be controlled or prevented. “In the short term, the profit margin is greater [with open net pen farms], but at what cost to our environment, and to the health of those who consume the end product, and the devastating effect on wild populations, and on the lobster industry?”

It’s no wonder normally affable Bluenosers don’t seem to have much of an appetite for Cermaq’s open houses… too many false assurances get served.

Shoreline along St. Margaret’s Bay near Hubbards, one of the bays in which Cermaq has an Option to Lease. Courtesy Linda Pannozzo

Cover: an underwater photo taken in an aquaculture cage with high densities of fish. Courtesy Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF)

References

References
1 According to NSDFA data, total finfish production in NS in 2018 (the most recent year data were available) was 8.2 million kg. Federal data is from National Aquaculture Public Reporting Data.
2 I generally like the use of hyperlinks but sometimes they send the reader down a rabbit hole, never to return to the original piece they were reading. So for that reason I put links to some of the problems that have plagued the aquaculture industry in the endnotes instead: There are stories about fish kills, sea lice, pesticide use, antibiotic use, and disease outbreaks; stories about data being withheld and  lack of transparency; stories about how farmed salmon are affecting wild salmon populations, or affecting the lobster fishery. There are even questions being raised about whether there are even enough wild fish left to feed the farmed ones.
3 According to the Indigenous Monitoring and Inspection Plan (IMIP) backgrounder: “On a tenure-by-tenure basis, the recommendations provide for an orderly transition of 17 fish farm sites between 2019 and 2023. Five farms have already been decommissioned, 12 others will remain in operations for various terms (two to four years). By the end 2022, 10 farms in total will have ceased operations permanently. The remaining seven farms will cease operations, unless agreements between First Nations and fish farm operators, and valid Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) licences are in place by 2023.”
4 The 2012 Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel report chaired by Dalhousie University Fisheries biologist Jeff Hutchings, looked at the issues facing Canada’s marine biodiversity in light of challenges posed by climate change, fisheries, and aquaculture. Drawing on the BC experience, where the vast majority of farms are located, it concluded: 1) finfish and shellfish aquaculture typically affect marine biodiversity at localized scales (less than tens of kms) although farther-reaching impacts are possible; 2) wild bottom-dwelling organisms, such as lobster, and their habitat can be affected by organic wastes and chemical inputs such as antibiotics, anti-foulants, and pesticides; 3) the spread of disease between farmed and wild fish poses a serious threat to the persistence of wild fish populations; 4) interbreeding between wild fish and escapees of the same species threatens the reproductive capability and recovery potential of wild populations of conservation concern; and 5) open-sea net pens “have far greater potential and realized negative consequences to marine biodiversity than closed-containment facilities.” The report also states that in the Pacific, with the possible exception of pathogens, it is “unlikely that the impacts of salmon net-pen aquaculture on marine biodiversity along BCs coast will be broad-ranging. Effects, however, are likely to be cumulative, particularly in areas of salmon farm concentration.”
5 The study was led by Dr. Kristi Miller, head of molecular genetics at the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. After her groundbreaking study — pointing to a viral infection in wild salmon — Miller was not allowed to speak to the media about her findings and her funding was cut. Miller’s findings raised questions about how the wild fish contracted the virus. Miller was called to testify before the Cohen Commission and while on the stand, flanked by a security guard, she revealed that the directives that kept her off-limits to the press were not from within the DFO but, she discovered, from the Privy Council Office, which served the then Prime Minister Stephen Harper. She explained to the inquiry that “If we bring out that there could be a disease issue in sockeye salmon without really understanding how far and widespread it might be… the worry would be that it would automatically be assumed to be associated with aquaculture, and we really didn’t have any data at that time,” she said.
6 See Section 3.1.2.1 of this report for more on the Cohen Commission’s findings.
7 The DFO’s update on the implementation of Justice Cohen’s 75 recommendations to date can be found here.
8 From Fraser River Panel Weekly Report #7, August 23, 2019.
9 In 2009, Alexandra Morton, biologist and founder of the Raincoast Research Society, launched and eventually won a legal challenge in the BC Supreme Court that forced the provincial government to hand over fish-farm management and licensing to the federal government. She argued that the province’s dual mandate to promote aquaculture was a conflict of interest.
10 According to DFA spokesperson Bruce Nunn, the new regulatory system changes include: Greater opportunity for public comment through the leasing and licensing process. The process includes public comment sessions while companies are exploring new areas for development and adjudicative hearings in which an application to operate in a marine area will be reviewed by an independent review board. The public is also provided an opportunity to comment on all administrative decisions such as renewals, assignments, amendments, and new land-based licences; Regulated factors that must be considered on all marine site application decisions; More proactive release of information on the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture’s website, for items such as new licence applications and all decisions; A new aquaculture administrator at the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, whose role is to make licence decisions for land-based operations, and lease and licence  decisions for renewals, minor adjustments and reassignments of existing marine operations; A new independent Aquaculture Review Board to review all applications for new marine sites, boundary amendments for marine sites that involve an increase in size, and amendments to convert non finfish licenses to finfish; The creation of a Regulatory Advisory Committee co-chaired by Minister Colwell and Chief Paul, that includes aquaculture industry, municipal government, stakeholder and NGO representatives; The creation of a five-person Science Advisory Committee that provides advice on broader regulatory science issues; The creation of a stakeholder-led Traceability Committee to advise on regulation and policy changes to support a program that can trace an escaped finfish back to the operator; and the creation of a Containment Management Committee to advise on regulation and policy changes to support a comprehensive containment management program.
11 Nunn’s response in full: “Government recognizes the benefits of greater upfront planning to identify areas suitable for aquaculture that are compatible with the environment and other users. That’s why the new regulations provide several mechanisms to promote proactive planning, including the Option to Lease process followed by individual companies pursuing new marine sites and the ability for the creation of an aquaculture development area in communities wishing to encourage future aquaculture activities as we are doing in response to a request from the Municipality of the District of Argyle who approached the province seeking help in developing aquaculture development areas in their municipality; see the news release here: https://novascotia.ca/news/release/?id=20200116002. In addition to legislation, the department has initiated several broad-based research projects to collect basic biophysical information throughout coastal Nova Scotia, and has proactively engaged with First Nations, municipalities, and stakeholder groups to better understand their concerns and exchange information in advance of any development.”
12 In the mid-1990s a salmon farm at Spectacle Island in Port Mouton Bay was operated by Aqua Fish Farms, and then by Cooke Aquaculture, which purchased the facility in 2008 and assumed management of the site in 2009, when it harvested the remaining fish. The site remained fallow for three years until 2012 when Ocean Trout Farms took over the lease from Cooke and stocked the pens with 350,000 trout. According to the Friends of Port Mouton Bay, Ocean Trout still holds the lease, which is currently up for a 20-year lease renewal. A public consultation period on the matter recently ended. But according to the Friends of Port Mouton Bay, the farm has not been in active production for a number of years. “The cages were removed a couple of years ago and the local municipal government has publicly stated its opposition to [it].”
13 Milewski also points out that in the old regulatory system the proponent was responsible for submitting an “Environmental Impact Assessment” (EIA). This document, which includes the biophysical, technical, or social data collected during the scoping phase is now referred to as a “Development Plan.”
14 https://i0.wp.com/www.halifaxexaminer.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/I3.-In-End-Note-14.png?resize=300%2C213&ssl=1 300w, https://i0.wp.com/www.halifaxexaminer.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/I3.-In-End-Note-14.png?resize=250%2C178&ssl=1 250w” sizes=”(max-width: 641px) 100vw, 641px” />
15 From Nicolas Denys’ 1672 two –volume book Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America (Acadia).

Linda Pannozzo

Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning author and freelance journalist based in Nova Scotia. email: linda@halifaxexaminer.ca; Website: lindapannozzo.ca

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  1. Thanks Linda for all your hard work and this article. It has shed some further light on this ‘rabbit-hole’ of an issue for us. (We fought the good fight here in Northwest/Southwest Cove so many years ago and thought it was put to rest!)

  2. Three things about salmon farming. 1. The successful open farms in Norway are in waters over 1000m deep. 2. Even there, the penned fish exhibit a completely different mucosal cell distribution than wild fish. That is, what functions as their immune system is radically different from a healthy wild salmon, if not also compromised. 3. On-land farms are possible to build, easier to manage the waste from, and less susceptible to storm damage and accidental release than open pens.

  3. The St. Mary’s Bay Protectors, based on Digby Neck and Islands were the first group to organize in response to the Cermaq invasion. Cermaq’s options expire there at the end of March this year. We are the canary in the coal mine.

  4. Petite Riviere / Green Bay in addition to being of significant historic significance, value to tourism and home to an endangered Atlantic salmon population is also home to the virtually extinct Atlantic whitefish. A salmon farm would be detrimental to all of the above.