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EDITORIAL-Newfoundland is 0 for 3 on aquaculture rulings

Mar 5, 2020

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

That’s from the Ian Fleming novel “Goldfinger” — it’s said by Auric Goldfinger, the villain in the James Bond story.

But maybe it could be recast for this province’s environment ministers — “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time, there’s clearly something broken.”

For the third time, the provincial government has lost a court case over environmental assessment decisions favouring open-pen aquaculture projects.

In each case, judges have ruled that the provincial government stepped outside its own laws and regulations to grant early approvals to projects that should have undergone more rigorous environmental examination.

It’s a situation that is virtually unique to such aquaculture projects; the province doesn’t have the same track record in non-aquaculture projects. Not even close.

In the latest case, a group of environmental organizations — including Salmonid Association of Eastern Newfoundland, the Freshwater-Alexander Bays Ecosystem Corporation, the Port au Port Bay Fishery Committee, Alan Pickersgill, John Baird and Wayne Holloway — were represented in court by Ecojustice. The main issue in the case was that a company called Northern Harvest Smolt wanted to expand and hatch millions more smolt than it was producing, and then place those smolt in sea cages that had been approved in the past but not fully stocked. The groups argued that the overall effects of the increase in farmed salmon in provincial waters — 2.2 million new fish in all — should be part of an overall environmental review of the hatchery’s plans.

The province disagreed. When the groups raised it in an appeal with then-environment minister Graham Letto, Letto said that since salmon smolt could come from another source, the effects of the additional salmon wouldn’t have to be considered as part of the hatchery project.

Having made the first decision, Letto oversaw the appeal of his own decision and ruled he was right the first time, saying “The decision to release this project from further environmental assessment was lawful and correct.”

Except, apparently it wasn’t, as far as the courts are concerned.

It’s a troubling series of losses for the province, including one case where the minister of the day, Perry Trimper, was found to have approved a project after overruling the recommendations of the environmental scientist tasked with reviewing the project.

Every decision that has since been overturned by the courts had the practical effect of speeding up projects and requiring less in the way of scientific review, an interesting situation for ministers who are charged, first and foremost, with protecting the environment.

Once bitten is supposed to be twice shy.

Three times bitten?

It is not unreasonable to say that we are looking at a pattern of conduct by a government with a vested interest in the economics of aquaculture projects going ahead as quickly as possible.