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Amid opposition to salmon farms, NS minister touts benefits of aquaculture industry

‘Open pen fish-farms already exist in the province, have for decades, and they will in the future’.

Nova Scotia’s Fisheries and Aquaculture minister says his department is taking people’s concerns “very seriously” about a multinational salmon farming company’s plan to establish operations in the province.

Cermaq Canada is looking at spending $500 million to create up to 20 open-pen salmon farms and land-based support facilities in Nova Scotia.

Some people who work and live in communities nestled along coastal areas Cermaq is eyeing for development have been speaking out and protesting against the plans.

But Keith Colwell said open-pen fish farming is a huge economic driver for communities, bringing a tremendous amount of tax revenue for the province each year — though he couldn’t put an exact dollar figure on how much.

“Open pen fish-farms already exist in the province, have for decades, and they will in the future,” Colwell told CBC’s Information Morning.

He said the aquaculture industry provides a sustainable food supply, prevents overfishing of vulnerable stocks and employs people in rural communities that have been affected by outmigration in this province.

In Nova Scotia, there are about 150 companies involved in aquaculture, with 230 sites in production. Over 500 people in rural parts of the province are working directly in the industry.

Of the sites in production, 35 are open-pen finfish sites.

Last year, the provincial government granted Cermaq options to explore five locations for possible expansion into Nova Scotia — Mahone Bay, St. Margarets Bay, St. Marys Bay and two sites in Chedabucto Bay.

Citizen groups have formed in communities nestled along those bays in resistance to Cermaq’s proposed open-pen fish farms, in some cases garnering the support of local government.

On Monday, a few hundred people attended a public meeting of the Municipality of the District of Digby where councillors voted 3-2 to oppose “the expansion of the salmon cage industry in the St. Marys Bay,” a bay where Cooke Aquaculture already has two open-pen salmon aquaculture sites.

Councillor David Tudor called the vote a victory. He said when fish farming came to the Digby area, residents were promised hundreds of jobs that never materialized.

“If they didn’t pan out the first time, I have no trust that they’re going to pan out the second time,” he told Information Morning.

Tudor said now that council has voted against open-pen fish farms, the next steps to protect St. Marys Bay will include going before the Nova Scotia Aquaculture Review Board, consulting experts and possibly hiring a lawyer to file an injunction against Cermaq.

“They’re desperately not wanted,” he said. “They’re not welcome.”

Impacts on lobster catches

Tudor said there’s research that shows open-pen salmon farming sites in the province have negative impacts.

In a research paper published last year in the journal Marine Policy, Dalhousie University research associate Inka Milewski found lobster catches dropped 42 per cent in Port Mouton Bay, N.S., over an 11-year period when open-pen fish farms were operating.

“We’re extremely motivated to not have the same thing happen to St. Marys Bay,” Tudor said.

Colwell said other academic and government studies, including one that’s being conducted right now in Port Mouton Bay, examining the interaction of lobster and finfish farms, have yielded different results

Colwell said if science finds that a location is not suitable for open-pen fish farming or that an open-pen fish farm is not operating properly, the province will take action.

Last year, a report by a committee looking at fish containment prompted the province to beef up its aquaculture regulations to make it easier to trace fish that escape from salmon farms and more difficult for them to escape in the first place.

Colwell said these new regulations have changed the way aquaculture is done in the province.

While the provincial government has control over the industry in Nova Scotia, the federal government has oversight in B.C, where Cermaq already has operations.

West Coast to East Coast

The federal government has given salmon farming companies in B.C. until 2025 to leave the West Coast and transition from open-pen sites to closed-containment systems, which many say is why Cermaq now wants to locate sites on the East Coast.

Cermaq’s director of sustainable development, Linda Sams, said the company is taking time to carefully investigate the feasibility of developing up to 20 farms in Nova Scotia from an environmental, business and social perspective.

She said the company also wants to do more studies to ensure the proposed sites can handle fish feces from the salmon farms, and that Cermaq can predict where it goes.

Cermaq is also looking into non-chemical options to treat its farmed salmon for disease, like sea lice, as Sams said the industry is using fewer antibiotics and pesticides than it did in the past.

Syd Dumaresq, who lives in Chester, N.S., is with Twin Bays, a group of residents in Mahone Bay and St. Margarets Bay that supports closed-containment aquaculture in Nova Scotia, but not open-pen salmon farming.

He said Twin Bays has presented its concerns to the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg and and also plans to do the same before the Town of Lunenburg.

Dumaresq said the fact Cermaq has identified problems with pesticides, antibiotics and feces confirms for him that these are issues that Cermaq hasn’t resolved.

“How do you solve the problem of millions of salmon pooping in the water? The only thing I can come up with is millions and millions of little salmon diapers,” he told Information Morning. “This is absolutely not the way of the future.”