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Cooke salmon farm boundary application spawns clashing arguments at hearing


The farmed Atlantic salmon and its extensive back story in Nova Scotia resurfaced this week.

A four-day Aquaculture Review Board hearing was held in Yarmouth on a boundary expansion application submitted by a division of seafood giant Cooke Inc.

“Overall, the Rattling Beach farm presents a very low risk – and that was confirmed in testimony by the Atlantic Salmon Federation – to the environment and to any potential interactions with wild salmon,” said Joel Richardson, vice-president of public relations with Cooke.

“It is operated as are all of our other farms in a very environmentally sustainable manner,” Richardson said.

The Rattling Beach salmon farm in the Annapolis Basin near Digby has been in operation since 1994. Currently owned by Kelly Cove, a division of Cooke, it operates 20 cages that can accommodate 660,000 Atlantic salmon.

Sarah McDonald, a lawyer for Ecojustice, an environmental law charity, advanced the argument that the Rattling Beach salmon farm has been operating for a number of years on more than 29 hectares, an area more than three times the size of its 8.75-hectrare lease.

“We still intend to make submissions on the issue of Kelly Cove’s history of non-compliance at the (Rattling Beach) site and our position is still that it is certainly relevant to the board’s decision,” McDonald said Thursday after the three-member panel chaired by Jean McKenna adjourned the hearing.

The provincial fisheries and aquaculture department and the company were given two weeks to submit in writing their closing arguments. McDonald and Ecojustice, who represented local resident and writer Gregory Heming as an intervenor at the hearing, will have a further two weeks to submit their final argument and then the panel will have 30 days to consider the oral and written evidence and render its decision on the lease application.

Ecojustice witness Jonathan Carr, a scientist from St. Andrews, N.B., who was asked to provide expert opinion on the intervenor’s behalf, talked about “potential risks to wild Atlantic salmon from the Rattling Beach site and really the nub of his evidence was that the company hasn’t done enough monitoring around the area for them to be able to say that there are no risks or that the risks will be adequately mitigated,” McDonald said.

“We will certainly be making the argument that the application should be denied, among other things because the duty to consult (with First Nations) was not fulfilled in this case and because of risks to incredibly endangered wild salmon populations.”

Jeffery Nickerson, the business development manager for Kelly Cove, said in an affidavit that “at no time since Kelly Cove Salmon has been operating at Rattling Beach” has the Bear River First Nation, the Acadia First Nation or the Annapolis Valley First Nation contacted the company with comments or concerns.

In questioning at the hearing Monday, Nickerson confirmed that the Rattling Beach operation has been operating at its current size of 29 hectares, three times the size of its lease, for 17 years. He said the current lease agreement would provide for only three to four cages and the farming of only 120,000 salmon.

Richardson says the company has done nothing wrong.

“This is not an expansion whatsoever,” Richardson said. “The assertions … that we’ve been operating illegally is simply incorrect. We’ve been operating with permission of the regulator. What came out in the evidence that was presented is that when the farms were originally established, before we owned them, back when GPS technology was not as great as it is today, the farms weren’t plotted as accurately then as they are today. Prior to 2015, the department of fisheries and aquaculture did not require moorings and anchors for aquaculture sites to be inside the lease boundaries. They changed that regulation in 2015.”

Richardson said aquaculture shellfish and finfish operators were given until 2016 to apply to the board to bring sites into compliance or to change their sites.

“We followed the regulation and carried on with the same size farm and the same operation and that was allowed,” Richardson said. “We have complied all the way along with the regulation and with the provincial bodies.

“We submitted the Rattling Beach application in 2016 and we’ve been waiting since 2016 to get before the aquaculture review board.”

He said the Rattling Beach farm has undergone scientific and environmental reviews.

“We are not changing the size of the farm at all,” he said of the boundary application.

“It’s simply to redraw the boundary line around the existing farm site, we’re not moving equipment or changing anything, it’s simply to meet the new provincial regulation on paper.”

McKenna cut off a line of Ecojustice questioning Tuesday about past enforcement of lease parameters.

Lawyer Alison Campbell, representing the fisheries and aquaculture department, argued that the board was to make a boundary application decision on eight factors set out in the regulations, including impact on local fisheries and other users of the water, the environment, wild salmon sustainability and community and provincial economic development.

After a cabinet meeting Thursday, Aquaculture Minister Steve Craig agreed with Campbell and the board.

“The aquaculture review board was quite correct,” Craig said. “They are an independent decision-making body and they look at applications that are sent to them, so it’s around new sites, expansion to existing sites and finfish species.”

Craig said the processes being put in place to govern the industry “are going to improve the regulatory framework and the compliance.”

“I don’t want to look at the work of previous administrations,” he said. “I believe that we have the best regulatory regime now in perhaps Canada and even further, around aquaculture. My focus is to take what was done in the past, recognize perhaps the shortcomings of that but certainly implement the processes and the regulations now that’s going to suit us well in the future.”

The Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia released a statement Thursday demanding that “national organizations like Ecojustice and local organizations like the Ecology Action Centre, focus on current and future regulatory and enforcement efforts, instead of dissecting aquaculture practices of the past.”

The aquaculture association said salmon fish farming “has been the subject of sustained misinformation campaigns.”

The aquaculture industry in Nova Scotia had a market value of more than $90 million and employed 881 Nova Scotians in 2020, according to information provided by the province.

There are 16 active finfish farms in Nova Scotia, 14 of which are operated by Cooke. Four Cooke sites are awaiting a review board hearing for lease applications – Saddle Island near Bayswater Beach, Brier Island in Digby County, Victoria Beach in Annapolis County and Liverpool Bay. The Liverpool Bay and Victoria Beach sites have applied for expanded boundaries.