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Farmed salmon impact on wild questioned at Cooke hearing

Aquaculture Review Board hearing an application by Cooke Aquaculture for boundary expansion

The potential impacts of farmed salmon on the wild population dominated day three of public hearings into an application by Cooke Aquaculture for an expanded boundary for its Rattling Beach fish farm in Digby, N.S.

A scientist for the Atlantic Salmon Federation acknowledged the company made improvements to the 20-cage fish farm, but said there is not enough information to determine whether it has had or is having a negative impact on wild Atlantic salmon.

In fact, Jonathan Carr said it is likely the operation is harmful given impacts from other fish farms.

Carr also said if the newly created Nova Scotia Aquaculture Review Board approves the boundary amendment, Cooke should use sterile fish. He called for monitoring of local rivers for escapees, intermixing between wild and farmed fish, and increased sea lice and disease.

“It sounds like they’ve got some pretty good improvement to the containment management practices in terms of trying to keep the fish in the pens,” Carr said in response to a question from the board.

“I don’t have any comment in terms of the due diligence they put in place there. The comment I do have is that fish do indeed escape. It’s been shown through the studies from different areas, and we just don’t know if fish have or will escape and the potential impacts in these nearby streams.”

Legitimizing current fish farm footprint

The independent review board is holding the first regulatory hearings into open-net pen salmon farming in Nova Scotia.

Cooke is not seeking to add cages or more fish to the site, which holds over 600,000 Atlantic salmon.

The company has applied for a boundary change that would legitimize the footprint of its fish farm at Rattling Beach. It has been operating well outside of its lease boundary for decades.

One of eight issues the regulator must consider is the impact on the sustainability of wild Atlantic salmon.

When pressed for details about impacts from Cooke’s operation, Carr repeatedly responded, “We just don’t know.”

Err on the side of caution, scientist says

He said information is lacking on how many wild Atlantic salmon remain in the three rivers in the vicinity of the fish farm, their interactions with the fish farm, the number of escapees or sea lice presence in the wild.

Cooke monitors fish at its farm for sea lice weekly and must report elevated levels to the provincial government.

A board member noted Carr’s interpretations are assumptions.

“That’s one of the things we’re laying out, the precautionary principle that the evidence isn’t there, you must, you should err on the side of caution,” responded Carr, who was a witness on behalf of intervenor Gregory Heming.

Under cross-examination by Cooke lawyer Robert Grant, Carr said there is little risk of sea lice transfer from farmed fish to smolts heading to sea in the spring when sea lice presence is suppressed by low temperatures, or that wild salmon would be in the area later in the year when sea lice is more prevalent.

“I think the likelihood is very low, there would be no smolt there at that time of year,” said Carr, though he noted that could change if temperatures warm.

Marked farmed fish by 2023

Nova Scotia overhauled its aquaculture regulations in 2015.

The new rules were modelled in part on the containment regime in Maine, where Cooke dominates the open-net pen industry. Measures implemented in that state in 2004 have reduced escapes from fish farms.

In 2023, Nova Scotia will implement a key piece of the Maine model requiring operators to mark all farmed fish.

Cooke will use genetic DNA markers to identify its farmed fish in Nova Scotia in case of an escape.

Media restrictions under review

The review board examining the Cooke application live streamed proceedings, but prohibited the media from videotaping, photographing or broadcasting any of it.

Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Steve Craig said the province will look at that during an upcoming review of the aquaculture regulations.

“I am committed to as we explore new ways of doing things and, for example, recording the hearings,” he told reporters Thursday.

“And I would like to explore this further and I have indeed directed staff to ensure it’s something that we look at in the New Year with the regulations that are being reviewed,” he said.

Mi’kmaw chiefs not consulted

The department rejected a demand from the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs that it be consulted.

The province said the boundary amendment does not involve a material change to the fish farm, so there is no duty to consult.

The assembly issued a news release Thursday saying its “concerns seemed to have been pushed aside and ignored.”

“While the proponent has continued to operate outside its boundary, impeding our ability to exercise our Section 35 constitutionally protected fishing rights, the province has chosen not to consult with the Mi’kmaq on the application,” the release said.