Photo: http://alexandramorton.typepad.com
Photo: http://alexandramorton.typepad.com

by Chris Benjamin

Several dozen lobster fishers, anglers, environmentalists, tourist industry representatives, and people in fishing associations gathered at the Lord Nelson Hotel Thursday afternoon for a press conference and support rally. They said they represented more than a hundred groups across Nova Scotia, and another hundred onlookers attended and cheered each speaker.

A few addressed the media and the rest were a show of broad support for the report, “A New Regulatory Framework for Low-Impact/High Value Aquaculture in Nova Scotia,” released last month. The report was co-authored by Dalhousie law professors Meinhard Doelle and Bill Lahey. It calls for a “fundamental overhaul of the regulation of aquaculture in Nova Scotia,” integrating “economic prosperity, social well-being and environmental sustainability.”

The report specifically addresses years of conflict between coastal communities and environmentalists on one side, and the open-pen finfish farming industry on the other. A review panel was to explore how to improve Nova Scotia’s regulatory process around aquaculture, with the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act (EGSPA) as a guiding post. Doelle also gave input into the creation of EGSPA. The finfish farming industry first came to the province in the 1970s and has been heavily subsidized by subsequent governments.

Gloria Gilbert

Gloria Gilbert, speaking for Coastal Community Advocates, said the report overcame a lot of skepticism and cynicism from coastal communities. “For the first time since I’ve been involved in this movement, which dates back to September 2006, we’re on the same page as the provincial government,” she said.

Raymond Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre warned that the report doesn’t mean the end of battles over the salmon farms in coastal communities. That’s because the report stops short of recommending a phasing out of open-pen fish farms. This style of aquaculture has been heavily criticized for its massive fish die-offs, and because escaped fish sometimes mate with and infect local wild fish with diseases. It also causes massive pollution due to heavy pesticide use.

“Will groups still fight against having a salmon farm put in their bay?” Plourde asked rhetorically. “I’d predict probably yes; they don’t want them.”

He called open pen finfish farming in this province a “fundamentally flawed and simplistic model,” inappropriate for our 20-30 foot deep bays, compared to several hundred feet deep bays in European countries where fish farming of this nature was first developed.

Community approval

But despite their disappointment that the report stopped short on banning open pen fish farms, the groups see it as a vindication of their concerns about the impact on environment and coastal communities. “We are prepared to join in this process,” Plourde said.

The first step recommended by the report is for the provincial government to strike up a regulatory advisory committee to advise the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA) on changes to the regulatory framework. The committee would include “stakeholders such as coastal communities, the fishing industry, and environmental and conservation organizations.” It would analyze the aquaculture carrying capacity of any community under consideration for a site, and potentially create restrictions on the number of fish and size of an operation.

With the release of the report, “we as communities finally felt we were being heard,” said Wendy Watson Smith, representing the Association for the Preservation of the Eastern Shore. She recalled an information meeting held by DFA in 2012 about the proposed fish farms on the Eastern Shore, when 300 community members showed up.

“We soon found out this was to be the only public meeting and would be considered by the government and industry as fulfilling their obligation for consultation.” In the end, they got more information from a regulatory body in Scotland, where the farm proponent originated, than they did from the government of Nova Scotia.

Conversely, she said that the review panel behind the new report “met with stakeholders and investigated various jurisdictions around the world in relation to aquaculture. The process…was very inclusive, thorough and open.”

Indeed, the 175-page report pays considerable attention to what the authors call “social license,” the idea that a corporation wishing to install a fish farm needs community approval first.

Speaking for the lobster

The report also prescribes the legislation of proper oxygen levels around and under fish farms, meaning that oxygen levels would have to be monitored and reported to ensure that “normal biodiversity” levels remain possible.

This condition is for environmental and economic reasons. The report stipulates that “aquaculture is developed and conducted to establish its compatibility with the well-being and prosperity of other sectors of the Nova Scotia economy, including the lobster fishery, the tourism industry and the fly-fishing industry.”

Steward Lamont

Stewart Lamont of Tangier Lobster said the report “speaks for the lobster,” by which he meant the $2 billion Atlantic Canadian lobster industry. He contrasted that with federal government plans to “make the use of pesticides and other foreign substances more accessible, more readily usable in open net pen farms.”

The report points out flaws in both regulations and attitudes toward the regulatory process. It states that industry and government are typically dismissive of the public’s environmental concerns. “This respect* [see note below] for traditional and local knowledge is evident throughout the report and is transferred into the proposed regulations,” Watson Smith said.

Gilbert added that a significant increase in resources for monitoring and enforcement of existing and new regulations is needed. “Factual evidence provided to government has been simply dismissed or trivialized or both,” she said. She also noted that industry must be cooperative and she looks forward to a statement from the aquaculture industry that it accepted the reports recommendations.

Heather Negus of the Nova Scotia Salmon Association expressed support for the report’s recommendation to “require the adopters to adapt, implement, track and report on comprehensive containment management systems” to reduce farmed fish escapes, reducing the danger of interbreeding and destruction of wild species, as well as the spread of disease from farmed to wild fish. She said that site selection, limiting the total number of farms, and reducing stock densities are also key recommendations.

Plourde urged the provincial government to implement all of the report’s recommendations “as a comprehensive whole without cherry picking or half measures.” He noted that the Natural Resources Strategy of 2011 similarly called for a multi-stakeholder advisory panel.

“Three years later [the panel] doesn’t exist. [That report] was punted.” He called this new report an opportunity for the province to produce a “world-class” regulatory system. He expects the report to take a few years to implement. Still, he’d have preferred an end to the practice of open-pen aquaculture here.

“They looked at it and they tried to find the middle ground; that’s what these types of things tend to do,” he said. “We feel the glass is more full than empty.”

Editor’s note: The first version of this story quoted Watson Smith as saying “Disrespect…” rather than “This respect…” Ms. Watson Smith assures us she said the latter.

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4 Comments

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  1. If the recommendations in the report are not good enough to ensure safe fish farming activities; then they need to be reworked ASAP before NSgov works them into the regulations. If not done correctly today, it will be years before the next revision of these regulations and all the while damage to local waters and existing valuable fishery resources will continue to occur. Make the right changes the first time. A new developing industry should not be allowed to negatively affect an existing industry and coastal waters that is beneficial to the NS economy and environment.

  2. Thanks Trevor and Steve, you’re correct. That was supposed to read “another few hundred” – I apparently skipped a word.

  3. Chris
    Your article is a good representation of the meeting except that your estimate of the numbers of people in attendance is woefully wrong. Part of the story of that meeting is in fact the attendance – the Herald said 400 and it was at least that. i was there sitting while they tried as hard as they could to accommodate the overflow crowd. Even then there were people who could not get in the room. This is important because it represents the interest in this issue from a broad cross section.
    Steve Hart

  4. Good summary of the meeting. It was amazing to see so many people attend in support of the desire to at least control this environmentally (and economically) damaging industry. I do think there were many more than a hundred people at the meeting. It would be nice to see the provincial government look more closely at the idea of supporting inland, contained aquaculture. There are already some small operators farming Char that could serve as models for this more sustainable (and more marketable) form of aquaculture. Many people – myself included – will not buy Atlantic Salmon because of how it is produced.